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Ian Dickson Special Edition

Experts by Experience

With the  launch of the Department for Education’s “Independent Review of Children’s Social Care” on 1st March this year, the issue of engaging with those who use and have lived in care settings became central to meaningful progress. The Review team invited applications from people who were “experts by experience” (EbE) to join an EbE panel, intended to represent the entire social care experienced community and advise the Chair of the Review. The Chair stated that he received 1011 applications. Of these 16 people were appointed to represent the entire social care community.

I don’t intend to comment on the relative worthiness of the successful applicants. I do however question whether this process, and the panel formed as a result, are fit for purpose or indeed whether this method of selection was the best way this key advisory panel could have been formed.

For me, the first question the Review team should have asked themselves whilst considering the form this panel might take should have been “what is care experience?”

The care experienced community is massively diverse. It is not restricted to simply children in foster care, residential care, adoption or kinship care. It includes so many groups including young care leavers living in the community, care experienced people homeless and living on the streets, young people living in health care settings, young people in custodial settings, older care experienced people, disabled young people living in residential care and the 19% of those in care who are under 5. To engage meaningfully with the care experienced community properly, the Review should have reached out to all of these diverse care experienced groups. Their reaching out is particularly important because many care experienced people in these situations will not be able to reach out to the Review, particularly during times of covid, and failure to elicit their views will mean a review that has not really connected with the care experienced community.

With this in mind, I contend that the way the “Experts by Experience” group was selected was at best poor and at worst extremely divisive. 

The Review, as I understand it, will seek to look at a range of aspects of the care of children and families in the community where children may be on the edge of care, and the support given by social workers to children when they enter and grow up in care settings. It intends to include kinship care and possibly even fostering. This is a massive range that includes children from very young to young people up to age 25, families, social workers and possibly scores of different professionals involved along the way. According to the Review’s definition of “experts by experience” each and every one of these groups qualify. Yet each can have very different set of concerns and hopes and not all of them need to be “care leavers”.

The Review Chair was clear that he wanted to have a relatively small group who might come together for half a day a month to chat and offer their thoughts. He suggested 10 -15 people.

This group would be interviewed for suitability by the Review team and people known to and directly appointed by the Chair. As I understand it, the interview panel was not required to demonstrate any knowledge or experience of the areas of interest of the people being interviewed, and there has been no detailed published guidance of the person and role requirements for selection of members of the panel.

Using the process preferred by the Review team, the people applying to be interviewed to be on the panel members had to:

  • know or be told that there was an “Expert by Experience” panel. Not likely in the case of the overwhelming majority of care experienced people;
  • know or be told where to find the form on a government web site;
  • feel able to complete this form, potentially describing parts of their experiences which may be triggering for them;
  • be able to successfully seek out a reference to support their application, which may also be triggering for them;
  • risk the potentially triggering experience of being rejected for interview; and
  • submit to interview, possibly having to describe traumatic elements of their childhoods, risking further rejection if they are deemed unsuitable.

Also, it is highly probable that a great many of these applicants may be far more qualified, experienced and knowledgeable about their areas of expertise than those interviewing them.

Given the massively diverse scope of the Review, the advisory panel ideally needed to include adopters, kinship carers, possibly some social workers, parents, therapists, residential workers….and people with care experience of each of the diverse care settings people dependent on the care of the state can find themselves in.

An obvious and immediate problem was the difficulty of including people with all this diverse experience and expertise in such a small group. If the group was to be limited to 15 or less, it was also entirely plausible that people with actual lived experience of being in care would be in a minority.

Also, on this point, the care experienced community are not all neatly accessible. Tragically, many of the care experienced community may be in custody, on the streets, living in relative poverty without internet, in unregulated accommodation and at risk. Given they would be unlikely to even know about, never mind apply for a panel place – who would speak for them?

Selection for this panel could have been done differently to ensure all the interest groups were properly represented. If Review really wanted to hear from a panel of real experts by experience it could have started by identifying the distinct social care areas needing to be reviewed and who the key players are involved in those areas.

The Chair wanted a panel of about 15 people representing the whole social care state. By any measure, no 15 people have the knowledge or direct experience to do that.

Nobody, no matter how experienced, has the expertise to speak from a deep knowledge and personal experience for all young people still in care, younger care leavers, older care experienced people, people living in and offering kinship care, adopters and adoptees, care experienced folk in custody, on the streets, in health care and mental health care institutions, in poverty in the community, etc.

Add to that knowledge and experience of having your children taken into or on the edge of care, having children with disabilities, in custody, and so on.

People in each of these situations needed to have a voice on the EbE panel if it was to be truly aware of their social care situation and be able to represent it. That was absolutely impossible in a group selected as above with up to 15 members. Such a group would be massively unrepresentative of the care experienced community.

However, each of the groupings identified above and any others could each have been given an “expert by experience” panel of their own, including only people with direct knowledge of their specific corner of the care and health care system. Indeed, those offering care and those receiving or who had received care in each of these care settings might each have had their own panel.

The participants for each of these ‘specialist’ panels could have been identified by specialists appointed by the Review team by due process. Those making the appointments should have appropriate qualifications, experience and a knowledge base adequate to be able to interview applicants effectively. 

Alternative ways of identifying and selecting children and care experienced people might have been considered that would recognise how potentially traumatic interviewing applicants for panels was, and how potentially “triggering” having to look back over their past experiences might be. Also, given almost 1000 people received emails of rejection following their applications, a great deal of hurt and anger was always likely to be the result. Acknowledging the rejection that many people with care experience face in their upbringing and preventing that in this process did not appear to be a factor in the Review team’s selection procedures. How to engage with applicants should have been given far more consideration by people skilled in human resources and who have a deep understanding of experiences of care.

Having possibly 10 or more different EbE groups, each looking at specialist areas of social care would have offered a much greater reservoir of wisdom, specialist knowledge and direct experience across the social care spectrum.  Each different expert group could advise the Review team directly on their particular area of expertise.

For more general advice and planning, each of the specialist EbE panels could have nominated or elected one of their members to sit on a central “experts by Experience” panel made up of representatives from each group. It is unlikely such a group would have included more than 15 people.

An Expert by Experience panel formed in such a way could draw on the immediate wisdom of up to possibly over 150 people, all specialists in their field. It would have been in my view be more democratic, more inclusive, more transparent and allowed far more confidence in the Review. On such foundations, a much more representative social care review might have been built. An opportunity missed?

Ian Dickson