The care review — A foregone conclusion? (And other questions about independence, bias and predilection)

Christian Kerr
7 min readJan 18, 2021

This is a blog about the appointment of Josh MacAlister as chair of the independent review of children’s social care in England.

First, I want to be absolutely clear from the outset that I believe the best way for social workers and others with a professional interest to approach the care review is to do everything we can to support and encourage the participation of care experienced people in the process and to ensure their voices are not only heard, but acted upon. And, without putting too fine a point on it, to ensure care experienced contributors are supported and held should they not. My sincere hope and wish is that this will not be necessary.

At the same time we should take a critical approach to the process and, where necessary, present reasoned challenge, and to do so reasonably and with the intention of supporting transparency and accountability through asking questions, rather than making assumptions. (As much a note to self as to anyone else! Hold me to that one, please.)

There are questions about the chair’s experience and ability to implement and conclude this review in the given timescale of 12 months, and about the process by which he was appointed, apparently without competition. Here, I will focus on the issue of Josh’s independence.

Frontline

There will no doubt be some rolling of eyes at the mention of Frontline from those who a) are passionate believers in the programme, and/or b) do not recognise the concerns consistently raised by critics (or regressive naysayers as we are often cast!) like me. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge some key factual information here. What this information may herald for the care review is, of course, up for debate, and I offer my own commentary below.

First, the key information:

1. Frontline was founded by Josh in 2013 with the support of Michael Gove, current Cabinet Office Minister and one of the most influential politicians of our time (see: Brexit and the reform agendas in education and social care)

2. Frontline has received in the region of £80m in awards to date from the Department of Education (DfE) to fund the programme to 2022.

3. The DfE has consistently promoted Frontline, including notably through the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, as a flagship social work training scheme.

4. Frontline was co-founded by global management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which provided Josh with ‘the ‘nuts and bolts’ support (resources and expertise) to turn his idea into reality’. BCG’s pro bono support to Frontline has increased in monetary value year on year — £200k worth in 2015–16, £230k worth in 2016–2017, and £235k in 2017–2018. (Figures unknown for subsequent years.) BCG has had a representative on the Frontline board from the outset (currently Jacob Rosenzweig).

5. Frontline has a plethora of corporate partners from which it receives cash donations. A major concern raised in regard to this ‘big philanthropy’ is that it is tax-sheltered, non-transparent and donor-directed.

6. Frontline founding partner BCG also founded the UK think tank the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) which has the tagline ‘reimagining government’ (notably, CPI was up and running within two months of the passing of the EU Referendum Act); CPI partnered with Frontline on a ‘blueprint’ for children’s social care, which was endorsed by key players in the sector, including the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, and counts among its authors several BCG and CPI personnel alongside contributors from Frontline.

Other interests and appointments

7. Josh is a ‘fellow’ of GLG Social Impact, the philanthropic arm of the Gerson Lehrman Group, consultants to global investors and hedge funds. GLG Social Impact provides ‘learning resources to a select group of nonprofit and social enterprise leaders for two years, at no cost’.

8. Josh has been a member of the Children’s Commissioner’s advisory board for the past four years (when a 3-year tenure is usually permitted).

9. Josh is on the board of King’s Cross Academy Trust’s board which, like all academies, is in direct receipt of DfE funding.

10. Josh and the CEO of charity Pause, Sophie Humphreys (also on the Children’s Commissioner Advisory Board) are directors of The Whatever It Takes Organisation (WIT), an organisation aimed at break the cycle of youth crime through intensive coaching. The pilot phase of WIT has been funded by trusts, foundations and unnamed individual donors with a view to securing further funding from central and local government.

Personal connections

11. Josh is married to Matt Hood, principal of the Oak National Academy, an online home learning platform which was conceived and implemented within a two week period with the ostensible aim of supporting schools and students during the first coronavirus lockdown. The Oak was immediately financially backed by Google and publicly approved by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and initially received £300k of funding from DfE for start up costs. The DfE awarded the Oak a further £4.3 million in funding to extend its programme beyond the first lockdown. (These two awards were given without recourse to the usual tendering procedures, using an obscure piece of legislation that allows for such awards in times of crisis.)

12. The Chief Social Worker for Children and Families has often publicly expressed her admiration for Josh and has consistently promoted Frontline over other social work routes. Notably in 2016, she gave an interview in which she spoke of a recent trip to Holland to learn about the Buurtzorg community nursing model, which was later used as the basis for the Frontline/BCG/CPI ‘blueprint’ for children’s social care, launched in 2019.

Views on regulation?

13. Josh remained silent when directly asked to support the recent campaign led by Article 39 to scrap Statutory Instrument 445. He has expressed, in word and deed, preference for deregulated models of provision incorporating private sector input, including that from global corporations with an arguable interest in the privatisation of public services.

Why are people concerned about these things?

A key concern regarding the considerable private business interests supporting Frontline is that successive Conservative governments have given these private business interests access to and influence over English social work and social work education via their financial and pro bono support for Frontline. The question is whether in doing so, Frontline is contributing to the creeping privatisation of English social work and social care.

The Frontline/BCG/CPI ‘blueprint’ appeared not to have the impact its authors hoped. The CPI continues to promote the ‘blueprint’, leading to concerns that the review may be influenced by the chair’s role as one of its key authors. Additionally, on the very day the care review was announced, the CPI announced a project to explore the ‘value of regulation’ in the public sector. The framing of regulation in value-terms is in my view deeply problematic, as is the consistent framing of regulation by Frontline/BCG/CPI in the ‘blueprint’ as ‘bureaucracy’ (underpinned by the assumption that all bureaucracy is undesirable). The question is to what extent these ideas — which are highly seductive in a sector crying out for change and to be freed from the shackles of managerialism and proceduralism — might influence the analysis of review’s findings, and the recommendations that follow.

With respect to Josh’s personal connections, it is not unreasonable to be concerned about the potential for conscious or unconscious biases, concerns or worries to interfere with a person’s objectivity. We are all human.

The Chief Social Worker’s admiration for Josh and her consistent promotion of Frontline has led to concerns about favouritism and patronage. This review must be free of the influence of the Chief Social Worker or any other civil servant. Is this possible given this connection? Her admiration for the Buurtzorg model on which the ‘blueprint’ for children’s social care was based, and which she enthusiastically endorsed, not to mention her frequent high praise for Frontline, demonstrates an apparent like-mindedness, or at least some shared preferences and predilections for particular models of provision and practice. There is a key point to be made here: If the review recommendations align with these predilections and preferences, even if they were arrived at by the chair through completely objective and open-minded analysis of the findings, the fact that these preferences and predilections are known to predate this review — the ‘blueprint’ being a notable example — then there is high level of potential for accusations of bias and questions of interference to dog the chair and, crucially, undermine the credibility of the review, which has a particular responsibility toward contributors, many of whom, it is hoped, will be care experienced people. For the care review to have meaningful and beneficial outcomes, the voices of care experienced people and other stakeholders must be heard, unfiltered by bias or predilection, and, crucially, acted on. This must include any views that diverge from DfE preferences and agendas. Therefore, scrutiny, transparency and accountability are absolutely essential. Within that, reason and reasonableness are our friends.

It should be noted that Josh has signalled his intention to step down from his role as CEO of Frontline and his roles on other charity boards in order to chair the review. It seems without question that he will have to step down from his Children’s Commissioner Advisory Board role, too. However, questions remain about the extent to which he may be influenced by his connections to key individuals, departments and organisations who have pursued particular policy agendas.

As has been asked in relation to this appointment: what does true independence look like? Can anyone be truly independent, given we are all in some way or other in hock to, or influenced by, someone or something? To cite just one, particularly noteworthy fact, Frontline has been awarded £80m in DfE funding up to 2022. The review chair has often stated how FL is a project of personal importance to him. It is not unreasonable, then, to ask whether the chair has an (entirely understandable) vested interest in keeping the DfE on-side.

For my money, the real question is not whether the chair of the care review is completely independent, but to what degree? Or, to put it another way, is he independent enough?

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Christian Kerr

Concerned citizen/novice by experience. Thru a social work lens. Working class person.