Child in need cases have been opened up to non-social work qualified staff despite concerns that the policy will increase risks to children.
The Department for Education’s (DfE) revised version of Working Together to Safeguard Children has removed the previous requirement for child in need assessments and casework to be reserved for qualified social workers.
Under the new policy, staff, including those outside of the local authority, will be able to take on the role, now termed ‘lead practitioner’, under the oversight of a social work qualified manager or practice supervisor.
Child protection enquiries and casework will remain ring-fenced for social workers.
Case for opening up child in need role
In its consultation on the plans, the DfE suggested this would enable staff already working with families – including family support workers, drug and alcohol practitioners, domestic abuse workers and youth workers – to take on the lead practitioner role.
The move is designed to provide local authorities with more flexibility in how they support families and also reflects the Children Act 1989, which does not stipulate that social workers should hold child in need cases under section 17.
In addition, it foreshadows the DfE’s plan to merge targeted early help and child in need provision as part of its children’s social care reforms. This move, recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, is designed to reduce the need for families to be transferred between teams and provide those with children in need with a less stigmatising response.
However, while the plans were backed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, both Ofsted and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) raised concerns they would undermine the quality of practice and increase risks to children.
With existing early help staff likely to be among those taking on child in need cases, Ofsted and fellow inspectorates have warned that some of these practitioners were already holding cases “above a level that they felt was appropriate for them”.
Split response to having non-social work case-holders
This split was evident in responses to the DfE’s consultation on the plans, the results of which were published last month.
Of about 1,000 respondents, 36% said they believed the changes would improve outcomes for children and families supported under section 17, while 38% disagreed.
And though 30% felt the role of social work qualified supervisor or manager would ensure appropriate social work oversight, 35% rejected this.
Supporters of the plan said it would increase flexibility in the delivery of support and enable councils to deploy practitioners with the right skills and relationships with families in the casework role.
However, detractors warned that harms could be missed where social workers were not the lead practitioner or, alternatively, cases may unnecessarily be escalated to child protection to ensure social work oversight.
Others raised concerns about how lead practitioners would be overseen by social work qualified managers, particularly when case-holders were based outside the local authority.
DfE presses ahead but tightens guidance
Though it has decided to press ahead with the policy, the DfE has made changes to the draft guidance to strengthen the expectations on councils to ensure appropriate oversight of cases held by non-social workers. It also stressed that it expected social workers to be lead practitioners for many child in need cases.
The revised guidance states that:
- The lead practitioner should have the skills, knowledge, competence, and experience to work effectively with the child and their family.
- The required skills, knowledge, competence, and experience, and how these will be monitored locally, should be set out in local assessment protocols.
- The protocols should also define who can act as a lead practitioner under section 17, and set out the process for the allocation of lead practitioners, accountability for cases and auditing.
In line with the draft guidance, the revised Working Together states that the social work qualified manager or supervisor’s role encompasses:
- agreeing with partners who the most appropriate lead practitioner should be and allocating the case to them;
- approving the lead practitioner’s assessment;
- reviewing and approving the plan for the child;
- meeting families and attending home visits where appropriate.
As statutory guidance, councils and relevant partners may only depart from Working Together for legally defensible reasons and not to a substantial degree.
Revised guidance on disabled children’s assessments
The DfE has also strengthened guidance on the assessment of disabled children and their families after this was backed by two-thirds of respondents.
While the previous version of Working Together simply set out councils’ legal duties around providing support to disabled children and their carers, the redraft sets out the value of providing this support.
It says practitioners’ assessments should be strengths-based and inform decisions on the help needed for the child to achieve the best possible outcomes, enable the family to continue caring for them where right for the child and ensure practical support to enable them to thrive.
However, while not proposed in the consultation, the revised Working Together also states assessments should inform decision making around safeguarding children where there is abuse, neglect or exploitation.
Though many parent respondents to the consultation stated that assessments of disabled children and their families were too safeguarding-focused currently, others highlighted these children’s vulnerability and the need for staff to “adopt a safeguarding lens when appropriate”.
Designated social care officer role (DSCO) promoted
The revised guidance also encourages councils to appoint designated social care officers (DCSOs), senior social work leads for special educational needs and disability provision (SEND).
The role is designed to oversee social care’s contribution to SEND provision, such as education, health and care assessments, plans and reviews, as well as strategic planning of services for disabled children, such as short breaks.
These changes to Working Together’ comes with the government having asked the Law Commission to review the “patchwork of outdated legislation for disabled children” and advise on how it can be simplified and streamlined.