By Ray Jones
There has been much concern about the Department for Education’s ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ children’s social care review, led by Josh MacAlister.
So what is the current state of play for children’s social care and how might improvements be made without jettisoning what is already good?
What is good and ought to be retained is the commitment and care of frontline practitioners; the wisdom and experience of those managers and leaders who have had their careers embedded in seeking to help children and families; the focus on engaging with children and families within their communities with transparent accountability through local councils, and the public service and professional ethic which prioritises a concern for people over the generation of profit.
There is also the internationally acclaimed legal framework carefully crafted in the Children Act 1989.
So what is not so good and sensible? In my view it is the four ‘Ms’ of money, mission, methods and markets.
Addressing funding shortfall
Instead, there is an urgent need to address the funding shortfall of £800m identified by the Association of Directors of Children’s services, in its latest safeguarding pressures report.
The funding so badly needed should be stable and predictable rather than the costly and unfair processes of having to bid for short-term ‘innovation grants’ that we have seen in recent years. They create churn and chaos amid short-term rushed change and are a distraction from the focus on front-line realities.
And beware of resorting to funding for children’s social care from the ‘new philanthropy’ of investment banks and hedge funds seeking returns on their investments. It again builds in instability and uncertainty and would mark the state walking away from its commitment to children.
Social care’s mission turned on its head
The second concern is about changes in the mission of children’s social care. The role of children’s social care, as enshrined in the 1989 Act, is clear. It is to help children in need and their families and, when necessary, to protect children. This has been turned on its head since the media and political shaping of the ‘Baby P story’ in 2008.
Rather than children and families social workers they are now sometimes described as child protection social workers in child protection teams.
The cuts in, for example, Sure Start, youth services and family support have decimated help for children and families struggling amid increasing poverty. Monitoring and surveillance of families, generating threat and fear, has skewed the work of social workers and others.
There were 162% more child protection investigations in 2019-20 than in 2007-8, and 76% more children subject to child protection plans. This has driven the increase from 60,000 to 80,080 in the number of children in the care of councils, and the great majority of these children are now in care through compulsory court orders.
It might be timely to reflect that the increase in child protection activity is not because more children are identified as being physically or sexually abused. Eighty six per cent of child protection plans in 2020 had neglect or emotional abuse as the initial category of abuse, which ten years ago would have led to attempts to reduce the strains on parents and, where appropriate, enhance their parenting awareness and competence.
Parenting well while being overwhelmed by poverty is a real challenge. Research consistently shows a high correlation between child protection investigations, plans and care proceedings and high levels of deprivation.
It might be hoped, therefore, that the MacAlister review will be explicit about the impact of the government’s cuts and austerity on children and families and how it has skewed the work and mission of social workers and others.”
Mission skew has also led to a methods skew. Strengths-based models, such as Signs of Safety, and a focus on practice competencies within social work education informed by the career-spanning professional capabilities framework, have strengthened social work, but they are undermined by squeezing the time social workers and others have to engage with families and for reflective supervision.
Whilst working with local authorities who were rated ‘inadequate’ by Oftsed, I was deeply worried about social workers having to close work down too quickly to take new work on and about the fragmentation created by organisational structures introduced to tackle escalating workloads and also to respond to making big savings.
Relationships destroyed and knowledge lost
Separate teams had been set up for intake, assessment, children in need, child protection, care proceedings, looked-after children, and leaving care. At each handover between teams and workers, relationships were destroyed and knowledge of the family and its history was lost.
This was compounded by looking to reduce office costs and withdrawing from communities to central offices with hot desking to reduce the space requirement.
Awful working conditions destroyed team identity and support and, alongside pressurised workloads, destabilised the workforce.”
There was then a high dependency on short-term agency workers and team managers. They had even less knowledge of, and more limited relationships with, children and families or with colleagues working in other services.
The best performing local authority children’s services have wise experienced leaders who stay the course, building positive cultures, creating stability, focusing on what is happening for children and families within their area, and staying close to their frontline colleagues and teams.
This is undermined by rapid turnover within children’s services leadership with directors of children’s services. My experience was that in those councils where children’s services were rated as ‘inadequate’, while the front line crumbled, senior managers were unaware and distracted by introducing big bang but unsustainable changes, bidding for short-term government funding, and delivering on corporate strategies, such as outsourcing services with the ambition of being a ‘lean council’ with minimal provision.
This consequent focus on markets and privatisation has been the biggest change within children’s social care. From 2011-19, there was a 42% increase in the number of children looked after in private for-profit care. The consequence is that £265m flowed out of local authorities last year as profits to the 20 biggest children’s social care providers.
It is leading to greater costs generating poorer services. Children are being placed far from their families, friends, schools and communities, with the Children’s Commissioner finding 2,000 placed over 100 miles from home in a report last year. The residential and foster homes are largely unknown and unseen by the social workers and their managers.
Commerce has trumped care and children as commodities are now more vulnerable and distressed.”
The solution is not, as has been argued in recent government-commissioned reviews into residential care and fostering, better commissioning and purchasing by local authorities. Nor is it more capacity in the privatised marketplace.
The request by Mr MacAlister for the Competition and Markets Authority to review the children’s social care market, which the CMA has accepted, was greeted with some scepticism. The CMA has the task of promoting more competition within more diverse markets, though it has stressed that it will investigate whether high profits have come at the expense of quality.
Reinvestment in public provision
Instead, what is required is capital funding to enable local authorities to re-provide children’s homes and locally-based community resources for children and families.
We also need social workers and teams to be based within the areas they serve and aware of neighbourhood networks, reclaiming community social work, with the same social worker able to remain alongside children and their family throughout their contact and engagement with children’s social services.
And in addition, national data sets and Ofsted should rate local authorities on their provision of care and help within their communities rather than children being isolated miles away and families having to travel big distances to get help or being stranded with no help at all.
And if local authorities are not performing well, we should require them to partner with better performing councils or have the injection of experienced leaders with a track record of shaping and supporting good services and practice.
Parntership, not outsourcing
They should have the powers of direction and the gravitas to front up against dysfunctional political, corporate and service cultures. This has already been shown to work on the Isle of Wight and been applied with positive outcomes to tackle what was poor governance in Doncaster, Rotherham, Tower Hamlets and Northamptonshire.
For children’s services, it avoids the complexity, confused accountability, multi-million pound costs, time delay, and route to privatisation of outsourced children’s trusts.
We can and should do better for children and families. There are local authorities successfully maintaining and rebuilding community social work and a stable workforce, holding on to local services, and creating integrated teams to provide help despite the big cuts.
But the government needs to be challenged on and draw back from its austerity and privatisation ambitions if the lives of children and families in difficulty are to be enhanced rather than exaggerated and exploited in a fragmented profit-focussed marketplace.
Ray Jones is emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. His most recent book is ‘A History of the Personal Social Services in England’ published by Palgrave Macmillan
This article has been updated