Sector bodies have heavily criticised the government’s provision of one-fifth of the resources called for by the care review to reform social care in its response.
The Department for Education has allocated £200m over two years to its children’s social care implementation strategy, which it said would “transform the current care system to focus on more early support for families, reducing the need for crisis response at a later stage”.
However, this compares to the government-commissioned Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s proposal for £2.6bn to be spent over five years on overhauling the system. The review said that £1bn should be made available over the first two years.
While social work, local government and children’s charity leaders welcomed aspects of the DfE’s response, they joined in criticising the level of resources provided.
More on the DfE response to the care review
Proposals unlikely to deliver necessary funding – BASW
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England said that the proposals appeared unlikely to deliver the funding needed “to tackle the urgent crisis in children’s social care”.
“While there are some positive measures announced, it falls short of the wide-ranging support vulnerable families need now, while there is scant mention of how to fix the poor working conditions that are driving social workers out of the profession,” it said.
The care review’s biggest proposal was for an investment of £2bn over five years to fund multidisciplinary family help teams across the country, replacing existing targeted early help and children in need services.
The review, led by former Frontline chief Josh MacAlister, said these would give children and families “the support they need, keeping more families together and helping children to thrive”.
In response, the DfE has pledged £45m to test the establishment of family help services in up to 12 areas.
BASW England warned: “This will take time to implement, meanwhile many local authorities will be wondering if they will be left out of this funding cycle and if a postcode lottery will ensue.
Council heads urge resource boost
For the County Councils Network, children’s social care spokesperson Keith Glazier welcomed the support for preventive services and keeping families together in the DfE’s response, as well as separate plans to invest £25m in recruiting and retaining foster carers over the next two years.
However, he added: “The funding made available to delivers these changes falls short of what both the councils and Josh MacAlister argue is required, while the pilots are only taking place in a select few areas at a time when young people across the country cannot afford to wait.
“We understand that the public finances are tight, but we urge government to increase the funding allocated for these reforms in line with the recommended £2.6bn by the end of 2026-27 – investing in children and young people has a significant societal benefit, and will deliver long-term savings.”
The Family Rights Group, a charity for families involved in the social care system, issued a similar message, welcoming the support for family help, as well as plans to increase financial support for kinship carers.
Reforms ‘fall alarmingly short’
However, chief executive Cathy Ashley said: “The reforms and the funding announced today fall alarmingly short of the scale of the crisis that is gripping children’s social care.
“Year on year, more children are being taken into a social care system marred by inadequate provision which fails too many of society’s most vulnerable young people. Meanwhile, families are not being adequately supported to keep their child safely at home, tearing precious relationships apart.
“The independent review projected that the number of children in care in England will top 100,000 by 2032 [from 82,000 now] without a significant change of course. Today’s announcement does not provide that.”
Children in care and young care leavers’ charity Become also responded similarly.
Care charity ‘extremely disappointed’
“The government has set out an ambitious vision to put love and stability at the heart of children’s social care, but their proposed implementation plan is lacking the urgent action and investment needed to make this vision a reality,” said chief executive Katharine Sacks-Jones.
“They’re effectively putting over 82,000 children in care at the bottom of the pile. After decades of underinvestment, the care system is now in crisis and the £200m announced today won’t even scratch the surface.
“We are extremely disappointed that the government is choosing to invest so little in our country’s most vulnerable children. With rising poverty leading to even more children entering care over the coming years, pressure and instability within the system will continue to rise at an alarming rate.”
Directors back ‘test and learn’ approach
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services was more positive in its response, and welcomed the DfE’s decision to pilot new initiatives, such as family help, rather than implement them wholesale.
“We are pleased the government has listened to our advice and is taking a ‘test and learn’ approach to implementation,” said ADCS president Steve Crocker.
“It is important for the sector to have the space to explore what works and, crucially, take the time to pause and re-evaluate where things don’t work as intended.”
However, Crocker too raised questions about funding, adding: “The current financial context for local authorities is tough and so any additional investment to fund local pathfinders before wider rollout is welcome, however, the level of funding beyond the next two years remains unclear. Getting change right for children requires proper, equitable resourcing.”
Children’s charity the National Children’s Bureau also issued a positive response to reforms that constituted an “unequivocal political commitment” to addressing deficits in past support for vulnerable children.
Chief executive Anna Feuchtwang also welcomed the DfE’s intention to “rebalance the system towards early support for families so they can overcome problems like mental health, domestic violence and addiction, and provide stable and supportive environments for their children to grow up in.”
Social workers ‘on their knees’
However, she too pressed the case for additional funding, adding: “The cost-of-living crisis is pushing more families into hopeless situations, while inflation eats away at hard-pressed local authority budgets.
“Social workers are on their knees, as the recruitment and retention crisis spreads across the entire children’s workforce. Alongside today’s strategy, the government must introduce an emergency package of measures to stabilise the current system otherwise they risk these plans becoming empty promises.”
DfE social care strategy: key points
- Funding: £200m in funding over two years. The care review called for £2.6bn over five years, with £1bn spent over the first two years.
- Social work training and development: An early career framework will be established, replacing the ASYE, as recommended by the review. Practitioners will be supported to develop, and be assessed against, the “skills and knowledge needed to support and protect vulnerable children”, and, in years three to five, to develop into “expert practitioners”. This will be tested by a group of early adopter councils with a view to full implementation in 2026. The National Assessment and Accreditation System, scrapped last year, will not be revived.
- Social work recruitment: The DfE will “explore ways to support the recruitment of up to 500 additional child and family social worker apprentices” to help tackle staff shortages, though it has not provided details on how this will happen.
- Agency social work: The department has proposed bringing in national rules to reduce the cost and use of agency social workers in children’s services. This would include capping the rates local authorities pay so that agency staff receive the equivalent of permanent workers doing the same role, once benefits have been taken into account.
- Family help: £45m will be allocated for up to 12 ‘families first for children pathfinder’ areas to trial the care review proposal to introduce multidisciplinary family help services, to provide “non-judgmental”, joined-up support for families affected by issues such as domestic abuse or poor mental health. This will bring together existing targeted early help and child in need services. As part of this, the DfE will consult on removing the requirement for social workers to lead child in need cases.
- Child protection: Child protection lead practitioners, who will have received “advanced specialist training”, will be appointed to lead safeguarding cases in the pathfinder areas, as called for by the care review. As recommended by the care review, they will co-work such cases with family help teams. In addition, the pathfinders will test the national panel’s proposal to set up multi-agency teams consisting of social workers, police officers and health professionals to carry out child protection work. The DfE will also consult on new multi-agency child protection standards as part of a review of Working Together to Safeguard Children in 2023.
- Independent reviewing officers and child protection conference chairs: The DfE has rejected the care review’s proposal to abolish the independent reviewing officer role. Instead, it has proposed to review and strengthen it. The strategy did not reference the care review’s separate proposal to abolish the child protection conference chair role.
- Involving family networks: The 12 pathfinders will test using family group decision-making, such as family group conferences, at an early stage to support parents minimise risks to children. In addition, seven areas will test providing family support network packages providing resources to help families care for children and avoid them going into care.
- Kinship care: A kinship care strategy will be published in 2023 while £9m will be spent on improving training and support for kinship carers. The government will also explore the case for the care review’s recommendations of a financial allowance and the extension of legal aid for those who become special guardians or responsible for children through child arrangements orders.
- Foster care: £27m will be spent on a carer recruitment and retention programme over the next two years focused on shortage areas, such as sibling groups, teenagers, unaccompanied children, parent and child placements and children who have suffered complex trauma. The care review called for the recruitment of 9,000 carers over three years. In addition, foster carers will receive an above-inflation rise in minimum allowances to deal with rising costs.
- Commissioning care placements: The DfE has backed the care review’s proposal to transfer responsibility for the commissioning of care placements from individual councils to regional groupings of authorities, regional care co-operatives (RCCs), which will initially be tested in two pathfinder areas before being rolled out. It has also accepted the CMA’s proposal to commission a national body to provide help for authorities/RCCs in forecasting demand and procurement. It said these measures would address the insufficiency of placements for children in care, improve outcomes and tackle the excess profit-making identified by the CMA among the largest providers.
- Financial oversight of providers: It will also introduce a financial oversight regime for the largest children’s home providers and independent fostering agencies (IFAs), similar to that for adult social care, to reduce the risks of providers exiting the market suddenly.
- Relationships for children in care and care leavers: £30m will be spent on family finding, befriending and mentoring programmes for looked-after children and care leavers, to help them find and maintain relationships, as the care review recommended.
- Support for care leavers: The suggested grant made available to children leaving care will increase from £2,000 to £3,000, while the bursary for those undertaking apprenticeships will rise from £1,000 to £3,000, broadly in line with care review recommendations.
- National standards and outcomes: The DfE will consult on a children’s social care national framework, as proposed by the review, setting expected outcomes for children and families that should be achieved by all local authorities. The proposed outcomes would be for children and families to stay together and get the support they need, for children to be supported by their family network and to be safe in and out of home and for children in care and care leavers to have stable, loving homes. These will be underpinned by two “enablers”: that the workforce is equipped and effective and leaders drive conditions for effective practice. Ofsted inspections will be aligned to the national framework.