Bold new chapter? Or endgame? Some initial thoughts on the Care Review recommendations
Back in March 2021, in the early days of the Review of Children’s Social Care in England, I tweeted some predictions based on my observations of the trajectory and nature of reform on children’s services in the preceding decade. I revisit them here as basis for a discussion on whether the concerns they expressed are borne out by the Review’s recommendations.
‘Child protection professionals’ / accreditation
Prediction #1: ‘I believe we may well be observing the endgame of a plan at least 8 years in the making which will see children’s and family social work completely refashioned and, indeed, replaced with ‘child/family protection professionals’ who will be trained to tackle social problems with prescribed skill sets rooted in behaviour/parenting modification techniques and a particularised, narrow conception of ‘systemic social work’.’
Prediction #2: ‘An accreditation scheme will be used to standardise skill sets and promote a particular and specialised children and families ‘social work’ that will become increasingly distanced from the profession and applied field described in the IFSW Global Definition of Social Work.’
Review recommendation: Introduce a five year Early Career Framework for social workers, an Expert Practitioner role and national pay scales
The Review proposes ‘an equivalent [to teaching] Early Career Framework for social workers to cover the first five years in the profession, leading to the role of “Expert Practitioner”… There should be a common national assessment in the second year of the Early Career Framework (replacing the ASYE assessment) and at the end of the Expert Practitioner pathway, to demonstrate ability to meet the expectations set out in the Framework… The Early Career Framework should include statements on “what social workers should know” and “what social workers should be able to do”.’
Discussion: The above has clear implications for qualifying and post-qualifying social work education and training. The recent ‘scrapping’ of the National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) by DfE (disclosed in a Community Care article, rather than by DfE announcement — an extremely odd way to communicate policy change) appears to have been a prelude to this new pathway, which is a further attack on generalism in qualifying routes and a clear attempt to further separate out children’s from adults’ social work. There will be no ASYE pathway for children’s social workers, but presumably it will remain the gateway to progression for adult social workers. This would appear to validate concerns that the approach is to reshape children’s social work as a technical profession based on prescribed skill sets and a narrowed conception of social work as being simply about ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ the right things— exactly what the Chief Social Worker has been attempting for the past decade — bereft of the kind of creative synthesis necessary for the kind of humane, contextually responsive practice needed in an ever more complex, quickly changing world.
The review strongly implies that qualifying programmes need to prepare students for this Early Career Framework, which has implications for HEI routes which do not currently require students to identify what area they wish to work in and are rightly geared toward inculcating a broad base of foundational values, knowledge and skills that can be built on, developed and refined within a career-long commitment to CPD. This proposal stands to move us significantly further toward technicism and early specialism.
This recommendation aligns somewhat with this proposal from another key player in children’s service reform, published in the run up to publication of the Review recommendations, for an elite cadre of ‘child protection investigators’, a key area of divergence being that the latter is not predicated on a professional social work qualification. It’s beyond doubt the author will have had prior sight of the Review recommendations, so can we take this as further proof of hegemony within policy networks? Or a supreme bit of trolling?
Prediction #3: ‘This New Way will neither acknowledge nor address as a structural concern that the single most influential factor that leads children and their families into contact with the care system is poverty, the perpetuation of which is a political choice.’
Review recommendation: Government should introduce an updated funding formula for children’s services, and take greater care to ensure that changes in government policy that impact the cost of delivering children’s social care are accompanied by additional resources for local government.
Discussion: This one I got wrong, at least on its face. The Review report not only acknowledges the impact of poverty on outcomes for children and families and their likelihood of contact with children’s services, but states practitioners need to address it and its non-material manifestations in their work. It also calls on government to account for additional expenditure arising from knock-on impact of its policies on outcomes for children and families. This is as close to explicit critique of political and ideological factors driving poverty as the Review get and there is a strong implication that this was in no small part to the Experts by Experience advisory board pushing to keep these issues on the Review’s agenda, which speaks to both the value of the EbE perspective and the challenges of conducting a Review under one of the most ideologically hostile governments in living memory.
Prediction #4: There will be an increased emphasis on ‘early help’ and, again, this will focus on parenting skills and behaviour. Low income families and parents with mental health issues, substance misuse issues and physical and learning disabilities will be disproportionately targeted.
Discussion: The Review report devotes a whole chapter to ‘A Revolution in Family Help’ and it contains much that, on the face of it, appeals. And indeed it does propose targeted help in some of the above areas, plus others. On the one hand, this should be welcomed but, on the other, it does raise the spectre of net-widening in the context of families facing intersecting, compound situational vulnerabilities (e.g. financial precarity x additional needs/disability x lack of universal sources of support) who may find themselves subject to ‘family help’ which, under these proposals, would be on a statutory footing (Section 17 Children Act). Much of this ‘help’ implies a behaviour modification element which combined with the implied threat of increasing statutory intervention, has potential to play out deleteriously for families of disabled children with other, co-occurring issues. At the same time, this offer of Family Help could lower the threshold for support faced by many families with disabled children, though the Review leaves it to the government to resolve alignment with the SEND green paper while recommending the Law Commission reviews the existing patchwork of legislation, including poor alignment with the Care Act 2014, that presents barriers to families with additional and disability-related needs accessing the support they need. Partly on-point, but for the most part the jury’s and only time will tell regarding the bleak prediction on net-widening, on which I hope I am wrong.
Technology and big data
Prediction #5: ‘Technology such as predictive analytics using big data harvested from local authority and other public records will play a key role as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ gathers pace.’
Review recommendation: Government should establish a National Data and Technology Taskforce to drive progress on implementing the review’s three priority recommendations to achieve frictionless data sharing by 2027, drastically reduce the time social workers spend on case recording and improve the use and collection of data locally.
Discussion: The Review report assiduously avoids use of hot-button terms such as ‘predictive analytics’ and ‘machine learning’ but under heading ‘Using technology to help practitioners support families’ it gives the example of Insight Bristol, ‘a data analytics hub with employees from Bristol City Council and Avon and Somerset Constabulary, which collects and analyses data to identify vulnerable families across Bristol to better understand the issues they face.’ Using the ‘Think Families Database [that] covers approximately 50,000 families across Bristol and helps identify risk and vulnerability using the criteria from the Supporting Families (formerly Troubled Families) Programme[pulling] together data from around 30 different public sector sources including: Bristol City Council; Avon and Somerset Constabulary; the DfE; Department for Work and Pensions; the NHS; and social care systems’ to earlier identify children at risk of sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation and not being in education, employment or training — ‘Sometimes those families are obvious but often they are hidden, so the database tells professionals about issues they might not have seen before.’ Rather than go into the multitude of ethical and privacy concerns regarding this, I point you in the direction of this previous blog which explains some of these and also to the fact that What Works for Children’s Social Care found that data analytics and machine learning did not perform well in predicting risk to children and sounded a decided note of caution regarding its uptake.
Fostering, adoption and the ‘broken care market’
Prediction #6: The fostering and adoption industry will grow, to the benefit of private interests & ideological agendas. Lip service will be played to the evil of profit in children’s social care, but the influence of big business and wealthy dynasties in the charity sector will go unremarked.
Review recommendation: The Department for Education should launch a high profile national foster carer recruitment programme to recruit 9,000 additional foster carers.
Review recommendation: Regional Care Cooperatives should be established to plan, run and commission residential care, fostering, and secure care.
Discussion: This is a huge and complicated, not to say highly emotive, area which I will for now defer to the expertise of others and refrain from commenting on, except to say that, rather than call for a halt to profit-making in children’s social care, the Review’s approach to the issue of the ‘broken market’ in residential care as well as the multiple issues that beset fostering alongside current challenges in adoption is to effectively make local authorities players in the market as countervailing force against profiteering and variable outcomes through ‘Regional Care Cooperatives’. This is, it has to be said, classic neoliberalism in that it frames the state’s role as being aimed primarily at creating and maintaining optimal conditions for the free market o do its thing. For now at least, I stand by this prediction, and will watch with interest how this unfolds.
The role of big charities and the influence global big money
Prediction #6 : There will be an increased role for big charities and third sector operators with opaque and accountable funding streams, and which foster ‘corporate partnerships’ with big businesses whose profit relies on the perpetuation of social disadvantage. Global big business will continue to influence the direction of travel in English social care and social work while advancing its own interests through the connections it makes via its ‘pro bono’ support for charities and social enterprises.
Discussion: The Review report makes no explicit mention of any of the above. At the same time, there is nothing in the report and its recommendations that presents any impediment to the ongoing incursion into children’s services by global big finance — with all the ethical issues that brings — and charities and organisations with opaque backers and agendas. Indeed, there is plenty of scope within the recommendations for the continued proliferation of private interests in policy networks shaping the future of children’s services in England and for the expansion private capital investment in social support solutions through dubious financial exotics like social impact bonds. Watch this space.
Dependency on agency social work
I predicted there would be some ‘sweeteners’ for sceptics in the Review report and recommendations, which may be the case, but in relation to this recommendation this framing would I think be unfair, for I do not doubt the genuineness of the recommendation or the intention behind it.
Review recommendation: The government should introduce new national rules on agency usage supported by the development of not-for-profit regional staff banks to reduce costs and increase the stability and quality of relationships children and families receive.
I very much welcome this recommendation, in spirit at least, for the rationale is undeniable: reducing and preventing the ‘churn’ that arises from agency staff turnover and which drives up costs to local authorities (and profits for recruitment agencies) will support the sustenance of relationships between social workers and the children and families they support. However, the backdrop is complex and necessitates consideration of the key issue of working conditions for social workers, which vary considerably across the piece but which have been in general decline for some time, in no small part as a direct result of political choices. Interestingly, despite the scale and depth of the issue, the Review report makes no explicit mention of working conditions, although advocates would no doubt argue that implementing the recommendations would lead to improvements in social workers’ working conditions. Were it that simple. I look forward to more in-depth, informed and cogent analysis of the Review’s recommendations from other commentators.