Ever-decreasing resources and increasing demand, a dedicated but over-stretched workforce, rapid change under government reforms, a hostile media focused on failure and a negative public perception – not ideal circumstances to do what few would argue is one of the most important jobs there can be.
The reality is those responsible for protecting vulnerable children from abuse are struggling in significant parts of the country. There is anxiety on the frontline and in town halls over what the future holds, as social workers continue to sacrifice their spare time to ensure children are safe and directors of children’s services come under increasing pressure to cut costs. Councils’ role as providers of children’s services is also being called into question.
But that is not the whole story. There is evidence the sector is also growing in confidence, influencing government policy and developing strong grassroots representation while in some places services are beginning to thrive under new structures of delivery.
The final evidence session for the Commons education committee inquiry into the government’s proposed reforms of social work suggested the government was listening to sector concerns.
Isabelle Trowler, chief social worker for children and families, confirmed that the new system of accreditation would be mandatory for all social workers, having previously faced criticism for suggesting it may be rolled out gradually on a “buy-in” basis across the country.
Services are innovating, but councils future role in providing them is unclear
Ms Trowler also said training in core social work should be maintained to cover all the complexities of frontline practice, despite the original reform proposals focusing on developing specialisms.
Professor June Thoburn, founding director of the UEA Centre for Research on the Child & Family, welcomed that government appeared to have “listened to the almost unanimous voice of the profession that initial training should continue to be generic”.
But she warned new fast-track training programmes such as Frontline and Think Ahead cost the Department for Education around three times more per newly qualified social worker than established MA routes, with ongoing uncertainty over dedicated bursaries.
Professor Thoburn added: “I think some of the ‘fast track’ trainees will struggle and will be gone within a couple of years. I would be worried, because since they are bright and articulate and have learned a set of ‘right answers’, they could be escalated into management roles before they have enough experience as frontline social workers.”
Recently appointed British Association of Social Work chief executive Ruth Allen said that while there was uncertainty over the complexity of workforce reforms, BASW could work with government to ensure “achievable aims”.
Children’s minister Edward Timpson has given tacit support for the association filling the void left by the collapse of the College of Social Work and emerging as the new representative body for the profession.
As well as signs of the increasing influence of sector leadership in Whitehall, reports suggest new models of delivery are improving the experiences of social workers, children and families.
The government has said moving children’s services into independent trusts in Doncaster and Slough was beginning to reap dividends on the frontline.
The tri-borough partnership of Westminster City Council, Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Hammersmith & Fulham LBC was among the first areas to be handed freedoms by the government to trial new ways of working.
Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea recently became the first to be rated ‘outstanding’ under Ofsted’s single inspection framework.
Tri-borough executive director of children’s services Andrew Christie said shared services had provided economies of scale and a platform for innovation. But he added a “radical” workforce development programme, funded directly by the government, had made a “big difference”.
This involved the introduction of “systemic therapists” based in social work teams to help them deploy their new skills.
Mr Christie added he believed the tri-borough approach would be applicable anywhere as long as the dedicated funding was available ahead of the model becoming self-financing, as demand on services begins to fall over time.
He added devolution provided an opportunity to “dramatically” change service delivery and manage demand.
“If you look at what is going on in Greater Manchester, you can see that others are looking very seriously at other collaborative arrangements,” he added.
Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, played a central role in shaping the government’s response to failing children’s services in Doncaster MBC and Birmingham City Council in 2013.
He said devolution offered a chance to improve services by making councils commissioners rather than providers of children’s services.
Professor Le Grande added: “That would require a lot of different skill sets among senior management, but local authorities have got a lot of experience in commissioning and often do it quite well and better than the NHS.
“That is the direction we are moving in and it is probably a good direction. Devolution in the model of the Greater Manchester deal provides more flexibility under a merged commissioner.”
There is evidence that the sector is determined, resilient and adaptable to new models, while successful innovation still takes place under existing structures without the luxury of direct government innovation funding.
Alternative delivery models appear to be beginning to show they could improve outcomes for children, stabilise workforce and save money, but only if councils are given access to vital initial investment.
INNOVATING TO SAVE
Hackney LBC – Pause
Hackney LBC’s Pause initiative works with women who have previously had, and are likely to continue to have, children taken into care. In an attempt to break this cycle, there is intervention when the women have no children in their care and are using long-acting, reversible contraception. This involves providing advice and guidance on how to tackle patterns of destructive behaviour and develop new skills. The success of Pause is measured in two ways: the number of women who do not go on to have further pregnancies, or women having children who subsequently are not taken into care. The original 18-month pilot involving 29 women, resulted in no further pregnancies. Cost benefit analysis shows this resulted in an estimated in-year cost avoidance to the council’s placement budget and the NHS special care baby unit of £1.2m, when the cost of Pause is excluded.
More toys one use
Stoke-on-Trent City Council – The House Project
Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s The House Project aims to develop the reliance and independence of teenagers leaving care. The young people are invited to become part of a housing co-operative and are given co-ownership of homes from the council housing stock and management responsibilities. Staff are employed to provide support, including independence training and guidance on the practical demands of managing a property and working as a team to run a business. The project has developed a new housing model that provides long-term housing for potentially vulnerable people and aims to provide a measurable impact on employment, health and offending.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council – Children’s centres
The council has incorporated children’s centres into its multi-agency safeguarding service. Children and families that do not meet statutory thresholds for intervention are referred to children’s centres for further support. The quantity of care proceedings for the under-twos has reduced from 95 in 2012 to 45 in 2014. Children’s centres also work alongside social workers to carry out pre-birth assessments. When the outcome is a recommendation to court for a care order and permanency plan, the planning for permanency begins pre-birth, resulting in an early secure placement. Children’s centres also work with extended family members to support them with special guardianship of children and adopters before and after placement.