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“Fundamental shift” needed for children’s social care

The Government commits to “once in a generation opportunity” reforms to improve the lives of England’s most vulnerable children and families.

The Government has committed more support to vulnerable children and families in England through a “fundamental shift” in how children’s social care services are delivered. The announcement follows the publication of findings of an Independent Review of Children’s Social Care published today.

The review outlines proposals to ensure that families most at risk will be supported to stay safely together, with a focus on early help, preventing them from reaching crisis point.

Calls for a Windfall Tax

Leading the review, Josh MacAlister called for £2.6 billion over five years to transform the system and prevent the number of children in care – already at record levels – rising above 100,000.

He suggested some of the money could be raised by a windfall tax on the fifteen largest providers of residential children’s care and foster care, who he said had “done very well out of market failure” by capitalising on demand.

New government measures expected

The Government is setting out initial new measures in response to recommendations set out in MacAlister’s review, which looked at how children and their families interact with the care system and how it can be improved.

The Government has revealed plans to set up a new National Implementation Board of sector experts and people with experience of leading transformational change and the care system. It will also boost efforts to recruit more foster carers, increase support for social workers including on leadership, recruitment and retention, improve data sharing and implement a new evidence-based framework for all the professionals working in children’s social care.

Commenting on the review, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, said: “This is the start of a journey to change the culture and dramatically reform the children’s social care system. 

“Everything we do to raise the outcomes for children and families must be backed by evidence. This report will be central in taking forward our ambition to ensure every child has a loving and stable home and we will continue collaborating with experts and people who have experienced care to deliver change on the ground.

“I am grateful to Josh MacAlister for his work, as well as to the families, young people, and professionals who shared their experiences.

“We are ready to meet the challenge set by this review and I will set out my plans for bold and ambitious change in the coming months.”

Family hubs

Seven areas of England will also receive funding to set up family hubs which offer early help and intervention, in recognition of the importance of strong, joined up local services to serve as a foundation for an improved social care system.

Local authorities will also receive funding for schemes that support vulnerable children to remain engaged in their education and strengthen links between social care and education.

The Government has highlighted that the seven new areas receiving funding for Family Hubs will build on a successful network of centres that are already up and running and are making a transformative difference in the lives of parents who may not have an immediate support network.

A further five areas will also receive part of a £12 million investment, in addition to the seventy-five areas that will receive part of a £302 million pot of funding, delivering on the manifesto commitment to a network of Family Hubs around the country.

To support vulnerable children to remain engaged in their education and strengthen links between social care and education, local authorities will also receive funding in 2022/23 to continue schemes that put social workers onsite in schools and provide designated safeguarding leads with supervision from senior social workers.

Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza said: “The publication of Josh MacAlister’s Review of Children’s Social Care is an important opportunity for all of us working with, and for, children. We must grasp this unique moment to deliver ambitious reform, designed around children and families. A system that delivers so we can properly shift the dial on their experiences and outcomes.

“Whilst the publication of reviews is only ever the first stage in a process, and the ideas held in them only as good as their implementation, we must not underestimate the need to act – so many children’s lives and futures are at stake. Too many tell me they feel let down by the services designed to protect and support them, so let’s seize this chance to do better. We need everywhere to be as good as the best and we must have no tolerance for anything less than excellent.

“I look forward to doing whatever I can to make this much needed reform a reality. We owe it to England’s children.”

Plans to reform the system include:

  • Setting up a National Implementation Board of sector experts and people with experience of leading transformational change, and with experience of the care system;
  • Working with local authorities to boost efforts to recruit more foster carers, ensuring children have access to the right placements at the right time;
  • Reframing and refocusing the support social workers receive in the early part of their careers, particularly to enhance their skills and knowledge in child protection;
  • Joining up data from across the public sector to increase transparency – both between safeguarding partners and to the wider public, setting out more detail later this year; and
  • Developing a National Children’s Social Care Framework, which will set direction for the system and point everyone to the best available evidence to support families and protect children.

Calls for urgent change

Since including a review to children’s services within their manifesto at the last General Election, the Government has set out a series of measures to address the most urgent issues facing vulnerable young people.

This includes banning under-sixteens from unregulated accommodation, bringing in improved standards of care, providing the largest package of children’s social care placements since 2010, investing millions in programmes that support families in crisis and young people leaving the care system and collaborating with experts to tackle the barriers to children’s school attendance.

Recruitment, retention and professional development of child and family social workers in England has also been prioritised, which they say is backed by £100 million over the last two years alone. Through these efforts, the number of child and family social workers is increasing every year and the size of the workforce has grown by 14% since 2017.

The author of the report, Josh MacAlister, said failure to tackle major problems in children’s services would lead to record numbers of youngsters entering care within a decade, at huge cost to families and the taxpayer.

“Change is now both morally urgent and financially unavoidable. We have a stark choice: keep pouring money into a faltering system or reform and invest to improve people’s lives and make the system sustainable for the future,” MacAlister said.

Shadow Minister for Children, Helen Hayes welcomed the report and said that after a decade of Conservative cuts to family support services and rising numbers of youngsters entering care, it highlighted the scale of transformation needed to improve children’s social care.

However, the Independent Children’s Homes Association said it was “stunned” at the review’s call “for the destruction of more than 30 years in the children’s social care sector, work that has produced one of the leading care systems in the world, while demonstrating an alarming lack of knowledge of the sector, poor examination of evidence, and misleading interpretation of critical data”.

Local Government Association pushed for the review

Following calls by the Local Government Association (LGA) to hold a review, Chair of the LGA Children and Young People Board, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble said: “There is much to support in this review, which is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the systems we have in place not only to keep children and young people safe, but to help them thrive. 

“It reflects many longstanding calls from councils, including an increased focus on family help, more support to keep children with their families wherever possible, and making sure children in care and care leavers are well supported with loving homes and lifelong relationships.

“We are also pleased the report recognises councils are best placed to deliver these services for local families and works to build on the good practice that already exists.

“We now want to work quickly with government and partners on identifying elements of the report we can and should swiftly implement, and on planning the medium-to-long term reform process. This must include commitment from across Whitehall to tackle the issues children’s social care cannot solve alone, including access to health services and ending child poverty.

“Government should also work with councils to urgently address those issues that cannot wait for the longer-term reform outlined in this review, including workforce challenges across the sector and a lack of suitable homes for children in care with particularly complex needs.

“As the report plainly acknowledges, reform and investment go hand in hand – one will not be effective without the other. This is why we’re calling for a White Paper within the next six months to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to reform, and truly transformational investment by the Treasury in the services that give all children the best start in life.”

The Local Government Association intend to work quickly with government and partners on identifying elements of the report that can be swiftly implement. They have called for a commitment from across Whitehall to tackle the issues children’s social care cannot solve alone, including access to health services and ending child poverty.

Final thought

It is unusual for the Government to commit to a Competition Markets Authority review of the market, let alone commission an independent review. This highlights the scale of the concern within Government that the market is not working for some of the most vulnerable children in society.

MacAlister’s review deserves praise given the evidence base calling for swift and decisive action. However, the Government faces a difficult decision to balance taking decisive action and spooking the market so that providers return the responsibility for providing that care back to local authorities.

At a time when local authorities are already facing huge pressures on children’s services, it is certainly the case that they would be unable to cope. Costs for providers are already extremely high – given all the obvious pressures including inflation, low unemployment rates and regulation – a windfall tax would certainly function as a contributing factor for many providers to close. Thus, returning the responsibilities of provision back to local government. Should a provider seek to continue, it is likely that prices will increase and thus the pressure on the public purse will increase.

The Government ought to weigh up the options closely and model the likely impacts. While the political optics may look good at first sight, if children suffer because of long-term misjudgment, it will certainly come to bite the Government later.

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