Social workers, academics and sector bodies have urged Gavin Williamson to overhaul the children’s social care review, including by replacing lead reviewer Josh MacAlister with a group of experts led by an “independent chair”.
In an open letter to the education secretary, over 100 practitioners and academics and 27 organisations called for the timescale of the review to be extended from the proposed 12-15 months and for the inquiry not to be bound by current resource limits or any presumptions about how services should be reorganised.
The organisations backing the letter, co-ordinated by children’s rights organisation Article 39, include family court practitioners’ body Nagalro, the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, the Association of Lawyers for Children and the Care Leavers’ Association. Individual signatories include the first Children’s Commissioner for England, Al Aynsley-Green, former British Association of Social Workers chair Judith Timms, former International Federation of Social Workers president David N Jones, and Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s/University of London and former social services director.
MacAlister’s independence and competence questioned
Echoing concerns raised at the time of Frontline chief executive MacAlister’s appointment last month, the letter questioned his competence to run the process as the sole reviewer, and his independence from government, given the £72m in funding from the Department for Education Frontline has received over the past five years.
The letter said that MacAlister, a teacher before he set up Frontline in 2013, had “no professional background in children’s social care” and that leading the review would probably be an “impossible” task for “someone with no prior direct knowledge of the children’s social care system”.
It called for a panel of experts and an independent chair to be appointed following an open recruitment process – in effect, a call to replace MacAlister as lead reviewer. He was appointed directly by Williamson without a formal recruitment process.
Scope ‘unrealistically wide’
The letter also said the scope of the review, which covers the whole of children’s social care, was “unrealistically wide for a relatively short time period, especially within the context of a global pandemic”. It also warned that “hastily produced plans would inevitably risk making the lives of children, care leavers and families much worse”.
The letter also made links to MacAlister’s involvement as a lead author for a ‘blueprint’ for children’s social care, which was published by Frontline and other organisations in 2019, based on a model that aimed to increase social workers’ face-to-face time with families by 60% by stripping out perceived bureaucracy.
The letter said that “this work shows that Mr MacAlister has already invested time and energy into thinking how children and families could be much better served”, and that it would be wrong for the care review to start with a ready-made template such as the blueprint.
Concerns were also raised in the letter that the blueprint was designed with no extra cost being made available to children’s social care and that the care review’s current terms of reference made no suggestion of extra funding being available to implement reforms.
The letter also called for any proposed legal changes to be referred to the Law Commission and ensure that any urgent changes to children’s services are not held up by the review.
In response to the letter, the Department for Education said: “The independent review of children’s social care will set out to radically reform the system, and we will shortly be setting out timings for this ambitious work.
“Josh MacAlister was appointed because of his understanding of the challenges facing the system and his experience of implementing innovative solutions. He will permanently step down from his role at Frontline and will be expected to comply with the Seven Principles of Public Life, in line with standard practice for senior appointments.”
The principles require public office-holders act with selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty.