Independent reviewing officer role saved in DfE care review response

Government pledges to strengthen role after review proposal to scrap it was met with widespread opposition

Management meeting
Photo: fizkes/Adobe Stock

The independent reviewing officer (IRO) role has been saved from abolition, the government confirmed today.

The Department for Education (DfE) rejected calls from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to abolish the role, following widespread opposition from social work bodies and children’s charities.

In its response to the care review, published today, the DfE pledged to retain both the IRO role and that of regulation 44 visitors – who are appointed by children’s homes to report on how well children are safeguarded – which the review had also proposed be removed.

IRO role to be ‘reviewed and strengthened’

The DfE said it recognised the “complexities and variability of practice nationally in these roles and acknowledge concerns raised by recent reviews”.

This included the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s ongoing inquiry into the safeguarding of disabled children in residential settings, sparked by the uncovering of abuse at three Doncaster children’s homes. The DfE said the panel’s first report had “indicated shortcomings in both roles”, and this would be considered further in its final report, due this spring.

However, instead of abolishing them, it pledged to “review and strengthen” both roles.

Care review’s case for abolition

The care review’s case for scrapping the IRO role was threefold:

  • It called for the provision of advocacy for looked-after children to be strengthened by making it available on an opt-out basis and ensuring advocates were overseen by the Children’s Commissioner for England to make them fully independent of councils. The review said IROs were unable to advocate for children in care because of their remit to focus on their best interests rather than voice their views.
  • It also argued that employing IROs to oversee children in care’s plans represented a lack of trust in social workers’ ability to practise in the best interests of the child and constituted “unnecessary bureaucracy”.
  • It was also critical of the way the role was carried out, saying caseloads were too high and citing adverse court judgments about the function.

However, the proposal was roundly condemned by a host of charities and professional bodies, with the National IRO Managers Partnership (NIROMP) warning that it risked removing a “powerful voice” for children, while the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO) said it would remove “vital independent oversight”.

Welcome from IRO association

NAIRO welcomed the DfE’s decision to retain the position on Twitter today, saying it would focus now on “continuing improvement of the IRO role”.

The care review had called for regulation 44 visitors’ functions to be transferred to advocates on the grounds that it saw little evidence that visitors – who are appointed by children’s homes – acted independently.

However, this was rejected by advocacy provider the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS), which said the two roles performed distinct, but important, functions.

After the DfE decided to retain the function, NYAS said: “It is a vital role and the flawed proposal by the care review has rightly been discarded.”

On advocacy, the DfE said it supported the establishment of an independent opt-out advocacy service and planned to consult on proposals for this in the autumn.

“We will develop the policy to ensure that a future advocacy service will empower and listen to children and young people, including children with different communication needs,” it said. “This will ensure children and young people understand their rights at pivotal transitions in their life.”

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.
  • Social worker pay: The DfE has rejected the care review recommendation for national pay scales for social workers on the grounds that this risked destabilising the local government pay system for insufficient benefit. But it has said that it wants greater transparency in what councils pay social workers in children’s services and wants to see existing inequalities in pay for particular roles reduced.
  • Social worker registration: The DfE has also rejected a care review proposal for all registered social workers, including managers and academics, to spend 100 hours in direct work each year to remain close to practice. It said it did not want to risk children facing more changes of practitioner or managers being drawn away from supervision. Instead, it said it would highlight examples of good practice in
  • 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.
  • Care experience: The DfE has rejected the care review’s call for care experience to become a protected characteristic under equality law, which would have required public bodies to tackle inequalities facing those with care experience and prohibit businesses and employers from discriminating against them. The department said it had heard significant concerns that self-declaration of care experience would increase stigma and that other measures in the strategy – including extending corporate parenting requirements to bodies other than local authorities – would have more impact.
  • 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.

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3 Responses to Independent reviewing officer role saved in DfE care review response

  1. Nickie Armstrong February 3, 2023 at 1:44 pm #

    I was an IRO and CP conference chair for 13 years until I retired in 2015
    In my experience the IRO role scrutinises Management decisions as much as social work practice as social workers often have to battle for their care plans for young people In this regard I think the role needs to be strengthened to make sure the IRO view has to be considered
    Being in the LA but independent of any case management is a unique and valuable position
    IRO’s -sadly in some ways- are sometimes the professional who knows the yp best where there are staff shortages or re organisations
    Young people, when they understand the role – in my experience- appreciate the independence of the IRO and can often build trusting relationships with their IRO

  2. Bee Meredith February 5, 2023 at 10:46 pm #

    IROs also identify good practice – it’s not always pointing out the flaws.
    The Care Review ignored the positives identified in the limited research and relevant court judgements; very much a ‘pick and choose’ approach.
    Being old enough to remember a time before IROs, I vividly remember the review where a manager chairing, simply just said ‘no’ to a foster carer over a simple question; they minimised the view and voice just because they had made the decision in the first place. No debate, no reflection, just ‘no’. I was the social worker! The manager was not a bad manager, just a busy one.

  3. Andrew Collins February 7, 2023 at 4:53 pm #

    Says an awful lot that one of MacAlister’s key recommendations isn’t being implemented and very ironic given he says the government must go harder and faster on reform in the article below this one.

    Social Workers and Directors should be incandescent about him and his review. He is part of the neo-liberal economic philosophy underpinning this government.

    The whole thing is a huge con-trick to roll back state involvement and to use social care staff to facilitate that process.