The Case for Change can create a constructive route forward, but it must grasp the nettles
Ray Jones reflects on the Care Review’s first major report, discussing the issues raised, what it failed to mention, and what is required in terms of practice and policy for it to effect meaningful change.
There was significant concern when Mr MacAlister was appointed to undertake the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ review of children’s social care. He was seen as having little relevant experience, as being too close to Government and the Department for Education (DfE) and to the private financial sectors which were colonising children’s social care, and to have signed a contract with the DfE with conditions which included not embarrassing the Government, not seeking additional funding, and with the review riddled and overseen by the Treasury. So what to make of this first interim report?
The report is to be commended for the range and depth of its analysis and is well worth a read. The civil servants who will have prepared the report with Mr MacAlister have captured many of the significant issues within children’s social care and corralled much of the evidence to illustrate these concerns.
What is not within the report is any historical analysis of how these issues have arisen. In essence, the state of children’s social care is worse today than ten years ago. Why? The last decade has seen increasing and more severe poverty for children and families, less help for them when they start to struggle, public services across the board which have been cut and now have to overwhelmingly concentrate on rationing and risk, and public sector workers who have been demeaned and demoralised. These are all the consequences of politically-determined austerity targeted at poor children and families and public services.
And it continues with more cuts being made in welfare benefits, reducing real term wages across the public sector, and local authorities having less funding from the Government, with this even harsher in the most deprived areas. At the same time the Government has pushed more privatisation leading (as is noted in this review report) to big chunks of public money being drained away as profits, and with it having been stated that social workers and within their training and education are too concerned about the impact of poverty and that more children should be taken into care and then adopted more quickly.
The interim review report, in essence, is stronger on the current state of children’s social care than analysis or comment on why it has deteriorated so much over recent years.
MacAlister has recently been reported as saying that we need to move on from “indulging in the admiring the problem”, suggesting that there has been too much navel gazing without calls for action and change. For many it has not been ‘admiration’ of the problem but anger that it has and is escalating.
So what action to take? The report potentially heralds a constructive route forward. It recognises the awful impact of poverty on children, the importance of not just working alongside children and families but also within and with the communities in which they live, and the crucial importance of a stable experienced social work workforce with the time to build and sustain knowledge and relationships with children and families focusing on helping rather than targeted on assessments and risk management.
It wants social workers to have more space and discretion in direct work with children, families and communities and for children and young people to have continuing caring relationships with their families, within their communities, and with care workers. It indicates it does not want help and support cut off by arbitrary age limits into adulthood. And it wants stronger multi-agency working and services and more joined up government to promote the welfare and well-being of children.
Now for the crunch. What does this require in terms of practice and policy – and will this review grasp the nettles. First, in taking its wider view of the welfare of children it should argue for an urgent halt and reduction of the cuts in benefits which are creating more poverty and causing more distress and difficulties for families.
Secondly, as noted in the review, there is a need for more funding for help for families. This needs, however, to be secure and sustained funding rather than the short-term funny money for ‘innovation’, or money required to generate a return for commercial and social enterprise investors.
Thirdly, moving away from a focus on risk and on defensive practice would be helped by politicians and the press changing their blaming narrative when something awful happens to a child or young person, and maybe MacAlister within his networks can help drive this (maybe too optimistic!) change.
Fourth, it would be sensible to rediscover community social work with social workers working alongside families within their communities and with help and care available for children within the communities and close to their supportive networks. This would be most sensibly and readily achieved through, for example, a strategic move to (re-)create local authority local children’s and family centres, foster care services, and children’s homes. There should also be recognition that residential care for older young people may be their option of choice.
What may still be a concern? The review seems to support only limited and minimal regulation of what is currently unregulated accommodation, despite the experience that this is leaving young people vulnerable. The review could lead to an increasing privatisation of children’s social care based on more competition (which may be what the Competition and Markets Authority would like to see), with increasing fragmentation of services. It could lead to a separation of services to help families from services to protect children, leading to more disruption with children and families passed between services and agencies and leading to the continuation of fragmented knowledge and relationships between children, families and social workers. And beware of the argument about more professional space and discretion for social workers being used to minimise the importance and availability of supervisors and managers. What is needed is to roll out the good practice of supportive management who share the stresses and worries of the work being undertaken and the sometimes-fraught decisions which have to be made.
And as a check on the direction and pace of travel, and recognising the stated intention that the children’s social care review should be open and transparent, following the publication of this first interim report there ought to be publication of the submission being made as part of the public Spending Review – as it is within MacAlister’s contract that he should be informing it.
Ray Jones has more than 50 years’ experience as a social worker and was a director of social services for 14 years. He is the author of six books, including the best-selling ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight’ (Policy Press 2014). In 2017 he received the Social Worker of the Year Award for Outstanding Contribution to Social Work. He is now emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.
His most recent book ‘A History of the Personal Social Services in England’ was published in 2020.
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