Family group conferencing good practice must not be diluted in rollout, experts warn

Event to mark study that found rolling out FGCs could prevent 2,000 children per year going into care hears strong support for approach but concerns about impact of not adhering to preferred model

Family meeting in a hall
Photo: Stock

Good practice in family group conferencing must not be diluted as the intervention gets rolled out across children’s social care services.

That was the warning from experts at an event this week to mark the publication of a study that found rolling out FGCs to families at the pre-proceedings stage could prevent 2,000 children going into care each year, saving over £150m a year.

FGCs are facilitated, family-led meetings of relatives, friends and professionals involved with a child at risk that are designed to produce a plan to keep the child safe within the family.

Children’s social care reforms

Alongside the research, commissioned by evidence body Foundations in June, the Department for Education has proposed revising the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance to encourage use of FGCs from early help onwards where there is a risk of the child going into care.

And it will test the impact of using family group decision making – a more general concept than FGCs – at an early stage of a child’s involvement with social care as part of its children’s social care reform programme.

This will be through the up to 12 families first for children pathfinders, which will test the DfE’s proposed new model of family help and child protection, and the separate family network pilots taking place in seven local authorities.

Children's minister David Johnston

Children’s minister David Johnston

New children’s minister

Addressing this week’s meeting, organised by Foundations, recently-appointed children’s minister David Johnston said FGCs were a key plank of the government’s ambition to reduce the number of children going into care.

“I think family group conferencing is so important and the evaluation confirms that,” he said. “It is reducing by significant proportion the number of people going into care. [The cost savings] are not my primary concern. My primary concern is that in preventing them going into care they will have beter outcomes as young people.”

Image of Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children and families

Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children and families

Following Johnston, the DfE’s chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, said the Foundations-commissioned study was groundbreaking in so far as it used a randomised controlled trial (RCT) to test the impact of FGCs.

RCTs are considered the gold standard method for testing the impact of an intervention and involve comparing outcomes between a group receiving the intervention and an otherwise similar control group that does not.

Controversy over FGC study

Despite the strong support voiced for the study at the meeting, it has proved controversial within social work.

After the study was announced, in 2019, 14 academics wrote an open letter questioning the ethics of using an RCT to randomly allocate families to receiving an FGC or not, on the grounds that access to a conference should be an entitlement.

In response, the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care (now Foundations) said all families receiving an FGC through the study would not have been referred for one otherwise, and that it was important to test conferences’ efficacy. These points were echoed by social work academic David Westlake in a piece for Community Care defending the study following its publication.

However, writing in response to Westlake, fellow academic Robin Sen, one of the signatories to the open letter, argued that the study design was contrary to social work principles of participation and self-determination.

‘Step-change in quality of social care evidence’

Referring to the study’s importance in harnessing wider government support for FGCs, Trowler said: “Nothing makes the Treasury sit up like an RCT. It gives confidence to the politician and the purse holders, but, critically, to local practice leaders.”

She added: “In the past 10 years, we have had a step-change in the quality of evidence coming into our work and that’s holding us in much better stead for decisions about funding.”

Though family group conferences, which originate among Māori communities in New Zealand, were introduced to England in the 1990s, their coverage remains patchy, said Foundations chief executive Jo Casebourne.

Charity the Family Rights Group has long promoted the use of FGCs, including through a dedicated network, and runs an accreditation scheme setting good practice standards for carrying them out.

Need to stick to FGC model

Speaking at this week’s meeting, Gloucestershire County Council’s FGC manager, Alex Ryan, advised fellow authorities to join the Family Rights Group network and stick to its standards.

“It’s not the Family Rights Group model, the Māori in New Zealand created that,” she said. “It came for a reason, because their children were being disproportionately taken into care.

“The need to stick to the model is for values-based reasons – it’s about going from being professionals are the experts to the families being the experts…This makes sure that family voice, their wisdom and experience stays at the centre of the discussion.”

The Family Rights Group’s FGC quality standards

  1. The FGC co-ordinator is independent.
  2. The family’s decision to participate is voluntary.
  3. The FGC is family-led and includes private time for the family to make a plan.
  4. The referred child or adult is the central focus of the FGC and is supported to take part.
  5. The FGC service should ensure that the family has all the resources needed to make their plan.
  6. The FGC should respect the family’s privacy and right to confidentiality.
  7. The FGC service should work to the principles of equality and inclusivity, respecting diversity, including respecting and being sensitive to the family’s culture and individual identities.

Ryan particularly highlighted the importance of families having private time – without any professionals present – to develop their plan, adding: “The FGC model needs to be the FGC model because it has that private family time where they are not being pressured to do one thing or another. If we say we’re going to take them somewhere that is led by them, we cannot impose our agenda.”

Importance of private time for families

Her point was echoed by Family Rights Group chief executive Cathy Ashley, who raised concerns about the DfE’s use of the term, ‘family group decision making’, as the approach it wanted to test through its children’s social care reforms.

“The problem of using family group decision making is that you get a variety of interpretations – it doesn’t involve private time [for families] or giving families time for reflection,” she added.

Casebourne added that “too often, families are receiving a rushed FGC that does not meet Family Rights Group standards”.

In response, Trowler acknowledged the importance of FGC co-ordinators being independent, adding: “The big thing for me is what do we mean by independence and what does this mean for the family who is the subject of the conference. Whatever it is, the family needs to feel that that facilitator is neutral.”

Tim Aldridge

Tim Aldridge

Meanwhile, Camden council director of children’s services Tim Aldridge said that FGCs should be seen as one element in making the whole children’s social care system more collaborative with families.

“There’s the scope for the whole system to be more collaborative and think about how it shares power with families,” he added. “We shouldn’t see family group conferences as a standalone but as part of a broader way of working with families.”

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