Experts highlight the review of residential care, social work practice ‘blueprint’ and investigation into children’s care market as key pieces of work that could influence what issues the review of children’s social care covers.
The work of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England has ramped up after it officially launched on 1 March, raising questions over the main influences on its scope and direction.
The appointment of civil servant Shazia Hussain, who previously worked on Sir Martin Narey’s 2016 Independent Review of Children’s Residential Care and A Blueprint for Social Care, co-authored by review chair Josh MacAlister in 2019, has been seen by some in the sector as offering clues to which direction the review will head in. Here, experts point towards key existing reports and ongoing investigations they feel may influence the review.
A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care
Frontline and the Centre for Public Impact’s blueprint is loosely based on the Buurtzorg model which was developed by nurses in Denmark in 2007 in response to “public service reforms” aimed at meeting targets and cutting costs.
The document co-authored by MacAlister lays out a similar structure for local authority children’s social care departments based around a self-managing, family-facing team working with families and children with the aim of reducing social worker caseloads and time spent carrying out paperwork and “box-ticking exercises” in favour of more time spent with families.
A family-facing team would be supported by other teams including a referral team, strategy team and insight and enable teams to increase face-to-face time with families by 40 per cent.
Sector leaders have questioned whether MacAlister’s ties to the blueprint suggest it may influence the direction of the review.
Robin Sen, lecturer in social work at the University of Dundee and an honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield, says it may be difficult for MacAlister to step away from his “intellectual entanglement” with the blueprint.
“To author it must mean he has some belief in it,” says Sen, raising questions over high-profile government figures throwing their weight behind the blueprint.
“Another question is whether or not Josh is able to move away from key players like children’s minister Vicky Ford and chief social worker Isabelle Trowler, both of whom backed the blueprint,” he says.
“The key players obviously have their own agendas and what they would like to see pushed through and that influence is a worry.”
He also raises concerns over the use of the model in the blueprint which aims to slash paperwork for social workers, warning that “anti-bureaucracy has transpired in the past as a code word for cuts to regulations”.
“What we risk here is losing regulations and safeguarding practices similar to the statutory instrument 445 exemptions put in place to reduce the responsibility of local authorities during the pandemic,” says Sen.
The sector has also drawn parallels between the contract for running the Care Review and wording in the blueprint which states that “no extra funding is needed to bring about the transformation proposed in this document”.
The contract states the “DfE cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations”.
Any requests for new funding should “be offset by savings across national and/or local public services (including local government children’s social care)”, it adds.
Director of children’s rights charity Article 39, Carolyne Willow, says: “The review’s current terms of reference make no suggestion of additional funding for services to children and families and refer only to the effective use of resources and value for money – both of which are essential but only when sufficient funding has been provided in the first place.”
However, Gavin Moorghen, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England, says the blueprint only covers “such a small part of what the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care is expected to look at” with the terms of reference promising a “bold wide-ranging review”.
Moorghen notes that children’s social care could benefit from “relationships-based” practice championed in the blueprint which was backed by BASW prior to its publication.
“The blueprint seems like too narrow an avenue to become the main focus of the Care Review but elements like increasing time with families, especially in a post-Covid world, is something that could be developed within the system,” he says.
MacAlister echoes this point in a tweet which reads: “The blueprint was a project shaped by social workers to apply one approach into the existing structures of children’s services. The review is much bigger than this.”
However, he adds: “I’m very open to the review making different recommendations.”
Narey Review of Children’s Residential Care
Questions have also been raised over the influence that Sir Martin Narey’s independent review of children’s homes could have on the Care Review following the appointment of civil servant Shazia Hussain as head of the review panel.
Ray Jones, social worker and emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University, points out that in his report on residential care Narey concludes “Shazia Hussain led the DfE team brilliantly. I hope very much indeed that if Ministers accept these recommendations that she might lead their implementation”.
“This opportunity is now arising,” Jones says, adding that this could lead to “the government’s ideological commitment to further move children’s social care into a privatised marketplace and away from publicly accountable and locally based councils.”
He adds: “Sir Martin has been a champion for the involvement of private companies in children’s social services and child protection.
“His review of residential care, like his review of foster care [published in 2018], did not recommend that local authorities ought to regain the ground they have lost by no longer providing services themselves. Instead, it recommended that local authorities should be better commissioners and purchasers in an expanded marketplace.”
Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) examination of children’s social care
Jones also warns that the CMA investigation of children’s social care provision could shape “the likely direction of travel” for the Care Review.
“The CMA has the brief of promoting competition – it is hardly likely to conclude that care for children should be a public service rather than a commercial profit-generating business,” he says.
The CMA launched the examination in March to investigate “the lack of availability and increasing costs in children’s social care provision, including children’s homes and fostering” following a request from MacAlister.
Andy Elvin, chief executive of charity TACT foster care and adoption, has mixed feelings on the probe and its influence on the Care Review.
Elvin explains that currently “fostering, 16+ provision and children’s homes are, outside the statutory sector, dominated by private for-profit providers”.
“On one hand it is deeply depressing that the CMA is central to a review of the children’s social care system,” he adds, “however on the other hand, I am delighted”.
He adds: “Asking them demonstrates a keenness of thought and a willingness to use all means available to fight for a children’s social care system that has children and their families and care-experienced adults at its heart.”
Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Foster Care Providers, echoes Elvin’s optimism around the inclusion of the CMA’s findings in the Care Review.
He says: “Where a child in care lives, is still too much of a lottery characterised by bureaucracy, lack of choice and fragmentation between organisations. From the perspective of independent fostering agencies (IFAs), one change that could make a huge difference would be to see local authorities and IFAs truly working in partnership with each other. This is where the CMA study could shine a light on historical and baseless divisions.”
However, Jonathan Stanley, manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, says that, like the Blueprint for Children’s Social Care, the CMA’s findings may “not take a wide enough view”.
He cites the Local Government Association’s Barriers and Facilitators to Local Authorities and Small Providers Establishing Children’s Homes report, published by Newgate Research, as “an example of the approach that will be helpful”.
“This looked at the actions of providers and local authorities, separately and as they interact,” he says, adding that “to enable understanding and planning for the Care Review the CMA must bring into focus all parties” including local authorities, the government and Ofsted.
Such agencies are “active” in creating a competitive market for children’s residential care and could play a part in “resolving it”, Stanley adds.
“It could be that authorities open homes to fill that gap for high-level needs using local partnerships with health and education. The CMA can assist by being creative and solution focused,” he says.
Questions of independence
As further details of the Care Review and its scope emerge week-by-week, questions around its independence and the 12- to 15-month timescale continue to raise concerns across the sector.
What experts agree on is that the review must be influenced, not by previous attempts to reform the sector or by a raft of recently announced investigations (see box), but by how best to meet the needs of England’s most vulnerable children.
The key question, many say, is whether MacAlister and his team can break the ties with previous projects to deliver the “bold, broad” review the sector was promised by ministers.
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