Community Care readers have overwhelmingly called for reduced caseloads as the best way to improve child protection in a snap poll.
Almost two-thirds (63%) of more than 1,100 readers who answered a simple multiple-choice question – “what would most improve child protection in England?” – opted for lower caseloads.
The poll was carried out after significant changes to child protection were recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s inquiry into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.
The former called for child protection work to be reserved for social workers assessed as expert in this area – which in future would be determined by passing a five-year early career framework. The latter recommended multi-agency specialist units to be set up to take responsibility for child protection in each area.
Both proposals proved much less popular than lower caseloads with readers, though the panel’s idea for expert units was the second choice option, with 16% support.
The care review’s proposal to ring-fence child protection work for expert social workers gained just 5%, a similar proportion to the other three options given: improving multi-agency working without specialist units, improving practice within partner agencies and improving social workers’ training and supervision.
The Department for Education is currently considering the care review and the panel’s recomendations and will respond fully later this year.
‘Need for specialist expertise’
On the eve of the panel’s report, former government safeguarding adviser Sir Alan Wood proposed creating specialist units as the best way of reducing child deaths.
In subsequently recommending the model to government, the panel echoed Wood in saying that child protection required specialist investigative expertise, while also arguing that multi-agency units would address longstanding information sharing issues that recurred in Arthur and Star’s cases.
Responding to our poll findings, Wood said it was “understandable” that reducing caseloads was the key preference given that in many areas they are “too high”.
“When you consider the reports and reviews on tragic child protection cases, the level of caseloads does not stand out as a consistent key feature requiring a key recommendation,” he said. “But a manageable caseload is important to social workers’ professional development and confidence, and should allow more time to work with the child and family – and that is a good thing.”
Multi-agency units ‘can tackle workload pressures’
Wood added that improved multi-agency activity was something backed by a range of professionals working in safeguarding, including those in education as well as health and the police. He said multi-agency child protection units should be designed to fit the characteristics of individual areas and could “meet directly the views expressed” by poll respondents.
Under his model, the units would be accountable to the three safeguarding partners in each area – the local authority, health and police – while the panel also recommended that partners set up a sub-group to direct multi-agency practice, including the work of the units.
“The key issue in driving and ensuring better multi-agency practice is leadership – at a strategic level the role of the three safeguarding partners provides the opportunity to sort the issues that bog down operational multi-agency working,” he said.
The poll findings come after several surveys have laid bare increasing pressures on practitioners in the wake of the pandemic. Social workers in children’s services told us their workloads had become bigger, more complex and harder to manage, in our annual caseloads survey, carried out in February.
Child protection ‘requires time with families’
Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, said the view expressed by the majority of poll respondents was “very sensible”.
Irrespective of organisational structures, practitioners needed the time and the opportunity to find out what’s happening in order to do child protection, he argued.
“What we need is the time to find out what’s happening within families, the time to share information with others to build up the picture, the time to think hard, and the time to then provide the help and take the actions necessary,” Jones said. “That all gets squeezed if you don’t have adequate capacity.”
“What’s important is professionals from different agencies, working well together, knowing and trusting each other, sharing information and where appropriate planning together,” he said. “[That’s the case] whether you have to bring them together into [new] teams to do that, or whether they have the capacity given to them to do it anyway.”
Jones, who has long been sceptical of using structural reforms – such as setting up independent children’s trusts – to drive improvements, said the merits of specialist units remained “an issue for debate”.
Danger of structural change
“Structural change always takes time, there’s always a danger that it’s disruptive,” he said. “At the end of the day what we want is people working well together.”
John McGowan, the general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said the poll result largely mirrored the union’s perspective.
“Social workers require wellbeing support and adequate professional development, time for reflective supervision to work through complex child protection cases, manageable caseloads and a consistent approach to caseload allocation,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel spokesperson said that because child protection is one of the most complex public services, “measures to improve the system cannot be undertaken in isolation from one another”.
“Our national review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson highlights a range of challenges in current child protection arrangements,” the spokesperson said. “These include long standing issues about the quality of multi-agency communication and information sharing, the need to ensure that practitioners have high quality and reflective supervision and that they have manageable workloads.”
The spokesperson added that bringing together key professionals into specialist units could enable a more joined up picture of what is happening to children. “Other recommendations would strengthen, both nationally and locally, multi-agency working and better support practitioners to undertake the very difficult and demanding work they do every day to protect children.”