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Children’s Social Care in the UK

Colin Turbett – 9 June 2022

A Busy Week –   The World of Children’s Social Care Strategy in the UK

The last week in May was a busy one for publications about  children’s social care strategy in the UK.  First there was the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (for England) chaired by Josh McAllister, the outcome of a process criticised by this writer a year ago.  Paralleling this significant event was the publication of the The Promise Oversight Board’s first annual report, reviewing progress in implementation of the Scottish Government’s commitments to children needing care (critiqued by Marion MacLeod’s Newsletter piece last August). On top of all this was an English National Review that looked at the murders of two children  at the height of the pandemic: Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson – injecting a dose of immediate reality into the aspirations of those who seek change.  There is not the space here to offer a full analysis of these documents but they contain  themes that Common Weal have highlighted often and need to be reiterated  in these new contexts.

The Independent Review in England does point to the manner in which outcomes for the most vulnerable children are shaped not just by their home lives, but sometimes adversely by the very services that reach out to help them.  It offers some good analysis of how this happens – the cycle of mounting pressure on stretched services leading to “episodic and siloed” responses that try and address immediate problems but miss much of what goes before and what follows in the aftermath of such crisis driven interventions in people’s lives. We couldn’t agree more and Common Weal’s Care Reform Working Group have published several papers outlining how a community based and comprehensive National Care Service could begin to address this.  

Common Weal have, however, gone much further, locating policy changes necessary not just in reform within the care and social work systems, but in the roots of a society that denudes services through austerity and sees the cure to service delivery problems within the market led system rather than, as we would contend, universal childcare services and a reinvigorated public sector.  McAllister’s report lets those responsible (i.e. the Tory Government) for starving communities of jobs and community services of funds, completely off the hook. It recognises the place of poverty but does not locate its causes and the fact that addressing them would go a long way to alleviating pressure on individuals and families that can escalate into harmful behaviours. 

In Common Weal, we have placed a lot of stress on the creation of community social work teams located and easily accessed through community hubs – an idea that is not new, but which has been largely forgotten in the 21stCentury world of “new public management”, “doing more with less” and consequential targeted services.  McAllister’s report reinvents the wheel (without crediting its origins) by coming up with the idea of “Family Help” Teams who would work alongside child protection workers and other agencies to offer families support at an early stage. This notion of preventative, relationship and community-based interventions is welcome – in fact for those of us who have been around long enough, it is “what we used to do”. However, the absence of detail suggests that even though social workers are included within the vision of such teams, the professional skills base necessary to fulfil this role effectively is not recognised, and the risk is this might turn into the cheaper employment of “family help workers” and those with lived experience, rather than those with a social work or other appropriate qualification (we would argue that social workers are an essential component of such teams).  In an easily overlooked footnote the review suggests piloting “radical” family help teams that would be run by community-based agencies to see if they result in better outcomes – this nod to entrepreneurialism will be music to the ears of some but similar initiatives in the past have failed to show that they are any better than public sector provided services. 

The report also refers to the need for discussion about eligibility criteria for family support, i.e that it is rationed rather than universal, and that expectations are clear on all sides, i.e more outcome-focussed managerialism. Our own view is that accessibility and preventative activity based on relationship building and trust is best achieved by abandoning such notions altogether, maintaining a friendly open door with minimal bureaucracy.  Indeed good early years provision should include family support as a universal service, a move that would obviate many more downstream targeted interventions (see Common Weal’s Child Care or Caring About Children – link above).

Family support is only one aspect of McAllister’s report: it is worth mentioning in the passing that his approach to the disaster of a huge profiteering private sector in children’s residential care in England, is to cap profits and look for third sector expansion rather than establish public ownership and control.

The Promise Scotland’s first annual report looks at progress and barriers to the implementation of the commitment to revolutionise approaches to the care of vulnerable children in Scotland.  Whilst it is honest in expressing disappointment about some areas, it sets a lot of hope in the Scottish Government’s published commitment in September 2021 to inject £500m into family support and ensure that at least 5% of all community-based health and social care spending is on preventative family support. It is indeed all about resources. The problem, in our view, lies in how additional resources allocations are implemented and how they are measured.  Unless this is done through local authorities and such initiatives are seen as central to social work and social care (i.e. not hived off to the third sector), this can only result in competition for funds whose outcome is determined at national level rather than within communities and shaped from the base.   Success should not be measured by performance indicators and target cultures but through careful longitudinal research. 

The Review into the deaths at the hands of parenting figures of the two children in England lists a string of failures that will be familiar to readers of such reports since the 1980s – missed opportunities, failed communications, problems dealing with parental resistance amongst them.  This time the spectre of agency workers also raises its profile: what the report does not highlight is how their use is symptomatic of services in meltdown.  Workers will not commit to the system of crisis driven reaction that characterises child protection across the UK, and the problem is evident in Scotland too.  Austerity and neoliberalism are at the root of both the poverty and inequality that create tensions for so many families, and the broken system that tries to deal with the vulnerable children who result.  The English review’s answer is yet another system tweak – this time to create single child protection teams that will include police, social workers and health specialists who are co-located and under a single management.  Whether this will be more about policing than social work raises questions that have been around this field of practice for years. Yet again “integration”, despite all the evidence that it does not in itself work, is seen as the answer.  The current system is not effective and needs both reform and resources, but this review changes nothing about general approaches but seeks to create an environment for flawless practice along existing lines.

We have a chance to get it right in Scotland with the creation of the National Care Service. The Common Weal Care Reform Group will continue to work to ensure this lives up to its name – and that means going far beyond the Scottish Government’s proposals and looking at the ideas we have presented in Caring for All.

1 thought on “Children’s Social Care in the UK”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Here’s hoping Scot Gov will listen! Using KPMG consultancy at great cost does not inspire! Some of the revelations ‘re children’s homes in England are awful, but we know that the Westminster government is criminally negligent towards the powerless and vulnerable?

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