By Robert Preston and Mithran Samuel
Social workers are children’s social care “greatest asset”, but they are being “staggeringly misused” because of the lack of time they have for direct work and career pathways that take too many away from frontline practice.
That was a key conclusion from the government-commissioned children’s social care review’s ‘case for change’, published today, its early thinking on how the system should be reformed, just over three months into its work.
This found that, 10 years after Eileen Munro’s government-commissioned review of child protection called for a shift from an ‘over-bureaucratised’ system to one focused on children, too little had changed.
The review, led by former Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister, said that social work was “at its best when staff have the freedom, responsibility and time to tailor their practice to the needs of the children and families they are working with”.
However, the bureaucratic, process-driven nature of children’s social care meant that those in frontline practice spent less than one third of their time with families, according to research for the Department for Education (DfE) published last year.
The review also took aim at social work’s career structure, which it said saw too many practitioners deployed away from the front line in management and non-caseholding roles, citing DfE workforce figures.
Too many social workers in management
“If we consider that the greatest value of social work is in the interaction between social workers and children and families, then it should be an ongoing source of alarm that 1 in 3 of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children or families,” said the report.
In an echo of the Blueprint for Children’s Social Care MacAlister co-authored in 2019, which called for the creation of ‘self-managing’ social work teams in order to increase direct work time, the report said that social work relied on “too many professional observers who are not directly involved in practice”.
It said that, as well as more experienced practitioners being enabled to stay at the front line, action was needed to tackle “disempowering and complicated processes to make decisions and allocate resources”.
“At a time of financial pressures and high workloads for frontline staff, this inefficient use of time and people does not support the most expert practitioners to make the difference for children and families that they joined the profession to deliver,” it said.
Burnout and knowledge gaps
The report added that the current system, along with high workloads, was also driving too many social workers to burn out, resulting in significant turnover rates – leading children to experience frequent changes of social worker – and too little experience at the front line.
“High stress levels are in part a symptom of a system that requires social workers to spend too much of their working time doing paperwork, with insufficient time left to spend with children and families,” it said.
And the review warned that the relatively high proportion of agency workers in children’s care, around 15%, increased costs and that a long-term reliance on them “inevitably has a negative impact on children and families”.
The review also highlighted critical skills and knowledge gaps in social work, citing findings from the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel about poor risk assessment and decision making in serious cases, and from a Ministry of Justice-commissioned review into private law practice that found deficits in domestic abuse competence.
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Investigative focus at expense of support
The review’s analysis on the state of social work was part of a wider critique of a system that provided insufficient support to families and was too focused on assessment and investigation. This trend has deepened over the past decade, with a significant shift in the proportion of local authority spending from non-statutory early help services to statutory provision, and rising numbers of children on child protection plans and in care.
This was despite the fact that those subject to children’s social care interventions were typically “parenting in conditions of adversity, rather than because they have caused or are likely to cause significant harm to their children”.
The report said the current approach, as well as not supporting families, was ineffective, pointing to a threefold increase in the past decade in child protection investigations that led to no further action.
“The review has consistently heard from parents and families who came to social care looking for support, but their experience of being assessed added stress to an already difficult situation without meaningful support being offered,” it said.
It added that children’s social care needed to take greater account of deprivation as a “contributory causal factor in child abuse and neglect”, with services more focused on tackling poverty and inequality, including in relation to race and ethnicity.
Care system failings
While concluding that more was required to keep children safely out of care, it said the care system was failing to prioritise and create loving relationships for the children who needed it.
Care experienced adults told the review that they faced cliff-edges in support, at 18, 21 and 25, resulting in broken relationships, a lack of protection from harms outside the home, poor advice as they entered adulthood and too many professionals involved in their care.
Echoing many previous reports, it said many of the care system’s problems were rooted in insufficient supply of high-quality placements.
“Underpinning many of the reasons the care system as it is currently designed breaks relationships, is the immediate pressure of there not being enough of the right homes in the right places,” it said.
It said, in a national market for independent fostering and residential care placements, providers were increasingly able to set the terms of engagement with local authority commissioners, driving up prices and leaving children in unsuitable placements, far from home.
In an echo of a speech MacAlister gave last week to the Independent Children’s Homes Association’s annual conference, in which he said profits were too high in that sector, the report said: “The review is concerned about the cost, profit, and financial health of providers and the impact of the current system on children. We want a pragmatic re-think given the urgent problems, the complexity of the issues and the fragility of the current system.”
It said it would work with the Competition and Markets Authority, which is carrying out a review of the children’s social care market, to identify solutions, though said there was “active debate in the sector about whether incremental improvement of commissioning or radical rethinking of the care marketplace is needed to ensure that children receive the care that they need”.
The Department for Education’s contract with MacAlister, published earlier this year, said that he should not “assume any additional expenditure” from the Treasury in his recommendations, with any additional costs needing to be offset by savings elsewhere in government over time.
But the case for change said that “there is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more” adding: “The choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes, or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate existing system.
“We don’t do enough to understand the collective costs of poor outcomes for children in contact with social care when we think about the case for investment.”
It said, in the review’s next phase, it would examine “what is needed, including additional investment, to deliver improvements to the system and the potential longer term savings this could make both through better outcomes for children and shift in demand away from the acute crisis intervention”.
‘Start of the conversation’
The case for change is based on conversations with over 700 people with lived experience of children’s social care, more than 300 working in the system, a call for advice on what the review should focus on – which received over 900 responses – and a call for evidence, which received more than 200 submissions.
It is also informed by the review’s experts by experience board – which includes people with lived experience – and its design and evidence groups, which comprise professionals, managers and academics advising the review on the evidence for change and how it can be implemented.
In a foreword to the report, MacAlister said: “This is just the start of a conversation. Finding the positive, speedy and lasting solutions is the hard work that begins following the publication of this paper. This report poses a number of questions that we need to discuss and answer together. Whether you are someone with lived experience of children’s social care, someone who works with children and families or a member of the public, we need you in this conversation.”
‘Review must understand root causes’
In its response, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Charlotte Ramsden said the report highlighted concerns the ADCS had been raising with government for years, including the value of early help, the impact of poverty on families and the risks caused by the marketisation of services.
She said: “There are fundamental issues raised within this report, such as the contributory causal relationship between income and state intervention, along with the racial disparities that exist. The review must therefore seek to understand not only the symptoms, but the root causes and solutions, which may be beyond the gift of children’s services, such as welfare and benefit policies. We all have an important part to play, not least central government.”
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), said the review was right to highlight how children’s social care was increasingly focused on investigating serious cases and putting children into care, rather than preventative measures.
“This isn’t simply the result of a more risk-averse system. It is inescapably linked to the devastating erosion of central government funding for children’s services over the past decade,” she said.
“There is also an important acknowledgement that children from poorer backgrounds, disabled children, and those from black and ethnic minority communities are often hardest hit by the cuts in early intervention.
‘Need to tackle poverty and discrimination’
“NCB fully supports the review’s call for a more effective and compassionate response to families facing conditions of adversity. We cannot avoid tackling thorny issues like poverty and discrimination if we are going to reduce the number of children coming into care, and avoid the spiralling costs of child protection.”
Teresa Heritage, vice-chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, agreed with the report’s calls for government departments to work better together, reforms to the placements market and more investment.
“We also urge the review to consider the context in which services for children and families are delivered. Inspection, media and government pressure can alter practice and drive risk aversion, while the impact of national policy must not be underestimated,” she said.
In its response, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England said the review “raises many fundamental issues of the environment social workers operate in, as well as social work practice itself”.
However, it said its focus on social work had come at the expense of “a holistic national approach to looking after children, one that includes welfare, benefit policies, employment opportunities and housing solutions”.
In relation to the review’s focus on child protection investigations, it added: “While scrutiny of social worker practice is welcome, the review needs to avoid re-iterating a government ‘blame culture’ and negative narratives around a workforce that has tirelessly worked pre and during the pandemic to deliver support, compassion, kindness to children and families hand in hand with undertaking assessments and safeguarding investigations in challenging circumstances.
‘Migrant children ignored’
Carol Homden, chief executive of Coram, welcomed the review’s focus on preventative measures but said it ignored migrant children.
“It is disappointing that there is limited focus on the timescale and direct support needs of children themselves, including through therapeutic and respite services, advocacy and legal advice as they navigate challenging family circumstances and the special educational needs they can face,” she said.
“The lack of attention on migrant children is a key omission and we will work with the review team to address this in the coming weeks and months.
“Money is of course no silver bullet, but it is important to see strong acknowledgement of the challenging conditions which children’s social care operates given the substantial loss of preventative services and support such as drugs or alcohol treatment during a decade of austerity.”
‘Lets government off the hook’
Campaign group the Care Review Watch Alliance (CRWA) called the report “unbalanced” and said it failed to address the effect of recent government policy on the care system.
“Whilst the review does identify some of the key issues that blight the lives of children and families such as poverty and social inequality, it conveniently apportions the blame on local authorities and social workers,” it said in a statement.
“This well and truly lets the government off the hook when we have seen child poverty rates increase exponentially since the introduction of austerity measures a decade ago through punitive welfare reform legislation leading to cuts in benefits and a vicious circle for some families as the landscape of vital provision and support has shrunk leaving many to fall through the gaps that have opened up.”