By Mithran Samuel and Rob Preston (story updated)
What would most improve child protection in England?
- Lower caseloads for child protection social workers (63%, 701 Votes)
- Setting up expert multi-agency units to handle all child protection cases (16%, 184 Votes)
- Improved multi-agency working without setting up expert units (6%, 69 Votes)
- Improved practice in the police, health and/or other agencies (5%, 61 Votes)
- Improved training and supervision for child protection social workers (5%, 53 Votes)
- Ring-fencing child protection casework for "expert" social workers (5%, 52 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,120
The government must introduce national pay scales for social workers, tied to a “vastly improved” learning and development offer, to boosts skills, reward expertise and retain staff in practice, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care said today.
The Department for Education-commissioned review’s final report called for the introduction of a five-year early career framework for practitioners on qualification, with progression, and pay, tied to knowledge and skills. These would be assessed in year two – replacing the assessed and supported year in employment – and year five, culminating in qualification as an “expert practitioner”.
The review said that, in future, this status would be required to undertake certain social work tasks, specifically recommending that it be mandatory for carrying out section 47 child protection enquiries.
In a statement to the House of Commons today, children’s minister Will Quince said he backed the early career framework in principle and pledged “robust plans to refocus the support social workers receive early on – with a particular focus on child protection given the challenging nature of this work”.
Welcoming the review, he said the Department for Education (DfE) would produce a fuller response and implementation strategy before the end of the year, alongside its response to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s report into learning from the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, published on 26 May.*
‘Inexcusably high’ use of agency staff ‘must reduce’
The long-awaited report also urged the introduction of rules to reduce the “inexcusably high” use of agency social work staff, as well as tackling “excess cost and profiteering” by agencies. This should include the government funding councils to set up not-for-profit staff banks that would become the first port of call for temporary workers.
The review also set a target of increasing the proportion of local authority registered social workers who are case holding from two-thirds to 75%, and increase, from an estimated third to a half, the amount of social work time spent with families. This would be through “reimagining” case management systems to “drastically reduce” the amount of time social workers spent case recording and national and local action to tackle rules and processes that kept practitioners away from direct work.
The care review’s proposals would also cut the number of hand-offs between teams by merging targeted early help and child in need services into a single ‘family help’ service.
Need for ’empowered workforce’
Overall, the review recommended the government plough £253m over the next four years into pay, development and cutting bureaucracy for social workers.
“The entire approach advocated by this review is reliant upon an empowered workforce,” said the report. “The recommendations set out by this review depend upon well supported, confident and trusted practitioners who have the knowledge and skills to meet the needs of children and families.”
Care review: key social work recommendations
- A five-year early career framework, with social workers assessed on their knowledge and skills after year 2 (replacing the assessed and supported year in employment) and year five, tied to a “vastly improved” professional development offer.
- National pay scales tied to progression through the framework and designed to reward skills, provide an alternative career path to management and boost retention. These should be applied to agency social worker rates.
- Expert practitioner status for those who pass the framework, added to their Social Work England registration, and, in future, made a requirement for carrying out certain tasks, including section 47 child protection enquiries.
- Action to raise quality of initial social work education, including through Social Work England oversight of practice educators and a government evaluation of university-based social work courses.
- All registered social workers to spend 100 hours a year at front line doing client facing work, to ensure managers are more rooted in practice.
- A target of 75% of registered local authority practitioners being case-holding, up from two-thirds now, and for 50% of social work time to be spent with families, up from an estimated one-third currently.
- Case management systems to be “reimagined” to “drastically reduce” the amount of time social workers spend case recording.
- Rules to reduce overuse of agency staff including restrictions on who can be hired and stricter adherence to regional agreements, plus funding to help councils set up not-for-profit staff banks that would be their first port of call for hiring temporary staff.
- Remove requirement, under Working Together to Safeguard Children, for social workers to lead the assessment of children in need. Instead, family help work – which would encompass child in need and targeted early help cases – would be held by a wider workforce, as part of multidisciplinary teams. Social workers would supervise all work with families.
- Social workers to have devolved budgets to provide practical support to families in need without the need for managerial sign-off.
- Independent reviewing officer role abolished and replaced with high-quality independent advocacy for children in care or care proceedings, overseen by the Children’s Commissioner for England.
At the heart of the report is a drive to shift the balance of children’s social care away from intervening late in response to crisis and investigating families towards earlier intervention and greater support.
Its proposals, the review said, would reduce by about 30,000 the number of children in the care system in England by 2032 compared with current trends, which would see this figure reach almost 100,000, up from just over 80,000 last year. It would also save money over the longer term.
Introducing the report, review lead Josh MacAlister – the former chief executive of social work training organisation Frontline – said the review’s proposals were “rooted in the belief that society’s first task is to care for children”.
“To do this our children’s social care system must get alongside and strengthen the families and communities that children grow up in, and that are often the source of love and belonging,” he added. “This is a simple idea that has proved notoriously difficult to realise.”
£2bn more to help families
Key to this would be the creation of family help services, merging early help and child in need provision, offering families “much higher levels of meaningful support”, backed by an additional £2bn over the next five years, targeting about half a million children needing extra support.
While councils would retain responsibility for these services, they would be delivered by a multidisciplinary workforce – with domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental health practitioners and family support staff working alongside social workers. Social workers would supervise all practice with families, but would no longer necessarily lead cases, as is currently required by Working Together to Safeguard Children.
Services would also be based in community settings that families trust, such as schools and family hubs, rather than council offices.
The injection of cash would help rebalance a system that has seen a much greater proportion flow into late intervention services from early intervention over the past decade, meaning more than £1bn a year is spent on family help by 2030 compared with now.
These teams would stay involved with a family should concerns about significant harm to a child emerge, but a family help social worker would then co-work the case with an expert practitioner specialising in child protection, who would also take on the role of child protection conference chair.
Need for ‘expert’ child protection practitioners
The review said this would enable a “just and decisive” child protection response.
“Child protection social work requires experienced, knowledgeable and skilled social workers, who are able to weigh up evidence, take tough decisions and have sensitive and life changing conversations with families,” it said. “They need to analyse information from different sources, identify patterns and hold multiple possible scenarios in mind, test these against the evidence and meaningfully engage with a child, their parents, wider family and friends and other professionals.
“This could be to decide what to make of bruising to a child that a parent claims was an accident, or understanding whether coercive control is present in a relationship.”
In making this recommendation, the review rejected the idea of splitting family support and child protection in order to tackle what it saw was an inherent tension between the two local authority activities.
“We have concluded that these activities must exist together, because risk is dynamic and structural changes separating the two may make the system less safe,” said the review. “However, by combining a broad category of family help focused on providing support, with a distinctive expert role that co-works where there is a risk of significant harm to children, we create enough distance between the two functions, whilst also enabling continuity of relationships and avoiding handoffs between services.”
Investment in kinship care
The report also urged significant investment in family and friends care as an alternative to children being looked after outside of their family network. Families would have an entitlement to a family group conference, prior to a case reaching pre-proceedings, so they could develop an alternative family-led plan before a council sought a care order.
Where this were agreed, the child would not become looked after but be cared for under a “family network plan”, with “appropriate local authority oversight” and funding to support the extended family to care for the child.
The review also made a number of recommendations to improve support for kinship carers, including by providing financial allowances to special guardians or kinship carers with child arrangement orders; extending legal aid in the family courts to all kinship carers and those seeking to become such, and providing kinship carers with paid leave from work.
‘Fixing broken market’
As widely anticipated, the review also included plans to “fix” the “broken market” for placements for children in care, in order to tackle the insufficiency of provision and what the review described as “profiteering” by large children’s homes and fostering providers.
At the heart of this would be the creation of regional care co-operatives – which all local authorities would have to join – that would plan and commission fostering, residential and secure care across their areas.
These would have a much greater “grip” on the market than individual local authorities, leading to “substantial reductions” in profits and tackle the “sufficiency crisis”, ensuring that more children were found homes close to their families and communities where in their best interests.
These would become fully operational by 2025 under the review’s proposals, with the more immediate shortage of placements tackled by a £76m drive to recruit 9,000 foster carers from 2023-26.
Though the review did not back caps on profits or prices, investment in the care system should be pump-primed by a windfall tax on the 15 largest private residential care and independent fostering providers.
The review also called for new universal care standards, which would ensure that all looked-after children received care up to the age of 18. This is, controversially, only a requirement up to the age of 16, with legislation allowing those aged 16 and 17 to be placed in currently unregulated accommodation and government plans to regulate this sector from next year only pledging to require services to provide ‘support’, not care.
Care experience ‘should be protected characteristic’
The review also called for improved life chances for care leavers, including by making care experience a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, in order to tackle discrimination and stigma and boost opportunities.
It also recommended action to ensure that no young person leaves care without at least two loving relationships, including through better maintenance of links with family and a new lifelong guardianship order, enabling a care leaver and a loving adult to form a lifelong bond.
It also urged improved employment opportunities for care leavers – including by councils and the NHS setting workforce targets – and action to improve access to university and apprenticeships and to reduce, and eventually eliminate, care leaver homelessness.
Government pledges to ‘dramatically reform’ social care
In response to the review, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “This is the start of a journey to change the culture and dramatically reform the children’s social care system…This report will be central in taking forward our ambition to ensure every child has a loving and stable home and we will continue working with experts and people who have experienced care to deliver change on the ground.”
He added: “We are ready to meet the challenge set by this review and I will set out my plans for bold and ambitious change in the coming months.”
Echoing the review’s own priorities, Quince, in his statement to the Commons, said his three priorities were to:
- Improve the child protection system to keep children safe from harm as effectively as possible.
- Support families to care for their children, so that they can have safe, loving and happy childhoods which set them up for fulfilling lives.
- To ensure that there are the right placements for children in the right places, so that those who cannot stay with their parents grow up in a safe, stable and loving home.
The DfE will respond fully to the report later in the year. However, as well as accepting in principle the plan for an early career framework for social workers, the DfE accepted MacAlister’s call for a national children’s social care framework – setting objectives and measures of success for the system. It also pledged to set up a national board to oversee reform, which would include sector experts and care-experienced people.
The DfE also said it would work with local authorities to recruit more foster carers. It also announced extended funding for pilots placing social workers in schools and providing social work supervision to school designated safeguarding leads, and for family hubs, which provide a range of support services to families in local areas.
*The story has been amended to state that the government will deliver its full response to the review before the end of the year, as set out in Will Quince’s statement. It initially stated that it would provide a fuller response to the review alongside the Child Safeguarding Review Panel report into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, published on 26 May. But ministers have said they will deliver a fuller response to both later in the year.