As the Department for Education’s MacAlister once-in-a-lifetime review of children’s social care hurtles at pace to its premature conclusions and recommendations, what might be expected to be the outcome? Trying to see the future by reading the tea leaves or gazing into a crystal ball may not be surest way of predicting what is ahead but projecting forward from current trajectories suggests the future direction of travel unless some significant re-routing is to be undertaken. And plotting and picturing the direction of travel is assisted by recalling what those close to government have been advising and advocating and what the government itself has stated as its intentions.
Isabelle Trowler has been the chief social worker in the Department for Education since 2013. As such, she is the civil servant who is paid to advise ministers on children’s social work and social care. She has stated that social workers still had to earn the trust and respect of the public, that their education and who can be a social worker should be politically-controlled by government ministers, and Tweeted that those who argued against increasing privatisation and commercialisation of children’s social work were like the pigs and other animals in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ who thought ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ (@IsabelleTrowler June 30 2014).
She had previously worked within Hackney with Alan Wood as the director of children’s services. He also has become a favoured government advisor. Like the chief social worker, he too was ‘relaxed’ about increasing involvement of private companies in children’s social services and child protection and also considered that newly-qualifying social workers from traditional university courses were ‘crap’.
Along with the chief social worker and Sir Julian Le Grand, of whom more below, Alan Wood was appointed by the government to oversee and advise the market analysis company LaingBuisson on how to create more of a market within children’s social services and social work for what Prime Minister Cameron had called ‘market insurgents’and the Department for Education (DfE) called ‘NewCos’ (new companies) to provide children’s social services. The intention has been that all children’s social services should be outside of local authorities and ‘academicised’ by 2022 .
To create the statutory platform for the privatisation and marketisation of children’s social service in 2014 the government changed the regulations (The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 (Relevant Care Functions) (England) Regulations 2014 ) so that the ‘market insurgents’ and ‘newcos’ could take on and be paid to provide child protection assessments and to initiate court proceedings to have children removed from their families and then to decide with whom and where they should live – may be in the foster homes and children’s home they provided to generate their profits
Now knighted, Sir Alan has received many government appointments to review and lead on changes within children’s social care, including chairing the ‘What Works Centre’, reviewing secure training centres, re-shaping child protection processes and procedures …
Another knighted by the post-2010 Conservative-led governments is Sir Julian Le Grand. He was the author of Tony Blair’s New Labour’s social work practises. They were set up in 2006 as pilots to allow statutory social work services to be contracted out to not-for-profit and profit-making companies. The pilots were not a success – the companies were not sustainable and too isolated from other services.
But no matter. In 2016 he wrote that the Conservative government led by David Cameron was ‘flailing around’ with ‘creative turmoil’ as it sought to improve children’s social services and that ‘whatever the outcome is I am certain it will be better’. May be this certainty follows from Le Grand’s argument that those working in the public sector were not seen as public servants and well-motivated knights seeking to assist others but instead were seen as self-interested and self-protecting knavesKnights, knaves, pawns and queens: attitudes to behaviour in postwar Britain. More recently, Sir Julian has been a board member of ‘Think Ahead’, the specialist fast-track social work training programme in mental health which in many ways mirrors ‘Frontline’, the fore-shortened social work training programme for children and families social workers, of which more below.
Sir Martin Narey is an advisor to the post-2010 Conservative governments who has also been knighted. Like Sir Alan and Sir Julian above Sir Martin is not a social worker and has no direct practice experience in children’s social care. He was the civil servant who had a lead role in the privatisation of prisonsbefore becoming chief executive of the children’s charity Barnardo’s.
Like others above, he has argued for more private sector involvement, has been an advocate alongside government ministers such as Michael Gove for more children to be adopted and adoptedmore quickly, and has shared with Mr Gove the concern that social workers and their education have given too much time and attention to the impact of poverty and deprivation on children and families.
Commissioned by Mr Gove to report on social work education Sir Martin recommended an initial training for social workers who would work with children separate from those who would work with adults. It was a model which was implemented with considerable funding from the government. It is notably defined in the DfE contract Mr. MacAlister has signed for the children’s social care review as “[t]he fast-track social work training programme provided by the Frontline organisation on behalf of the Department” [italics added]. It also has financial and other inputs from a hedge fund and international management consultancy and accountancy companies.
It was the international management accountancy company KPMG which, along with Morning Lane Associates(see below), was fundedby the government to shape theKnowledge and Skills Statement for Child and Family Social Work (KSS) which was created, following Sir Martin Narey’s recommendations, by the chief social worker. It has undermined the profession and career spanning Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF)carefully and skilfully developed by social workers. It was the decision within the DfE with the chief social worker to award the lucrative KSS development contract to KPMG and MLA rather than to the College of Social Work which led to the final demise of the College.
Like Sir Alan above, Sir Martin has been appointed by the government to key posts within children’s social care, including reviews of foster care and residential care as well as social work education. He has also been appointed as an advisor to the Children’s Commissioner in England. Sir Martin gained some notoriety when he challenged a damning Ofsted report of a children’s secure training centre run by the security out-sourcing company G4S. There was a flurry of concern when it became known that Sir Martin had previously been paid as a consultant by G4S. More recently Sir Martin has joined the board of Sanctuary. Sanctuary is a private company making sizeable profits as a social worker employment agency. It is now expanding and diversifying in to the provision of private children’s homes.
When Isabelle Trowler was working within Hackney’s children’s services her immediate line manager was Steve Goodman. He has been described by the chief social worker as a ‘close and personal friend’ and there was an investigation by the National Audit Office into the millions of pounds of public money the small company Morning Lane Associates (MLA) had received from the government.
MLA had been formed by Mr Goodman with the chief social worker, before she was appointed to her DfE role, along with Mary Jackson (now the chief executive of Frontline). They had all worked together in Hackney’s children’s services when Sir Alan Wood was the director of children’s services. Like the chief social worker, who has stated there is enough money already for children’s social services, but it is being badly spent. Mr Goodman has Tweeted that it is directors of children’s services who are responsible for the high numbers of children in the care of councils not the government cuts in funding for services which help families (@Morning_Lane, 5.54 am, 14 October 2017).
Mr Goodman’s networks also encompass Josh MacAlister. Mr Goodman was paid as the social work advisor to Frontline, the social work training company formed by Mr MacAlister and which has benefitted from substantial government funding including in 2019 an allocation of £45m.
Frontline’s chair is Camilla Cavendish. She was formerly a columnist with The Times and Sunday Times and which included award winning campaigning claiming that social workers misused their powers and misled courts to get children removed from familiesand, more recently, that it was their failings which led to the killing of an adopted child. Prior to her key role within Frontline she was Prime Minister Cameron’s strategic policy advisor, he appointed her to the House of Lords as Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice, and Prime Minister Johnson has appointed her to review adult social care. Her husband has been an advisor to the Bank of England and is described as having “vast experience of both the asset management and banking industry”.
Indeed investment banking and the finance industry seems to be a thread which now runs through much of social work and children’s social care’s shaping and development. For example, it was reported in 2015 that:
Frontline’s founding partners include international children’s charity Ark, which was set up by a group of hedge-fund financiers and runs 34 academy schools, the Boston Consulting Group and the Credit Suisse financial services group. In addition to £3.7m of government funding (£6m if student bursaries are included), it says it has received £1.2m in “support from elsewhere”.
A somewhat similar incursion by bankers and hedge funds was to be found within the board of the DfE’s Children’s Innovation Fund. Alongside Alan Wood and Isabelle Trowler the three other board members had backgrounds in the financial sector managing hedge and investment funds.There was comment that while Wood and Trowler were board members MLA were a significant beneficiary of the Innovation Fund alongside other DfE financial awards to MLA with concerns expressed by the British Association of Social Workers. When MLA was voluntarily wound up and closed in 2019 its company accounts showed that it had assets of £2.2m. Its sole shareholder was Steve Goodman. Another major beneficiary of the Innovation Fund was Frontline.
A recurring link across children’s social services is the influence of multi-academy schools trusts such as ARK. ARK was an integral co-founder of Frontline:
Josh McAllister first came to Ark Ventures in early 2012, wanting funding to prepare a research paper with the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) exploring a “Teach First for social work”. Ark Ventures felt that Josh and the idea were of high potential, so offered feedback and support and introduced Josh to our network to facilitate the development of this paper.
ARK has its roots in the USA and was founded by hedge fund managers as an international provider of children’s education. Its expansion into the UK was led by Amanda Spielman who was a founding member of ARK’s management team. She had a background as an accountant and in corporate finance. In 2016 it was reported that “Of the eight members of the trust’s board – who are effectively the governors of all 34 schools, since the local governing bodies have no statutory powers – five are hedge fund managers. None have any background in education.”
Amanda Spielman is married to the managing director of Citigroup, a multi-national investment bank. In 2016 Amanda Spielman was appointed by the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, to be the chief executive of Ofsted, an appointment which was unsuccessfully opposed by the cross-party Education Select Committee because she had no teaching experience, lacked vision and passion, and “Ms Spielman’s responses on child protection were particularly troubling and did not inspire confidence that she grasped the importance of Ofsted’s inspections in preventing children being held at risk through service failure”.
Another significant and controversial appointment for children’s social care from within multi-academy trusts is Rachel de Souza, the new children’s commissioner in England. With a background as a teacher and school principal, she was the founding chief executive of the Inspiration Multi-Academy School Trust. It was established byLord Agnew, a Conservative life peer. Hewas a non-executive board member of the Department for Education and chairman of its Academies Board from 2013 to 2015. He was appointed lead non-executive board member of the Ministry of Justice in July 2015at the same that Sir Martin Narey was appointed to the board when Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Justice. Mr. MacAlister’s contract for the children’s social care review requires that he links with the Ministry of Justice and the review covers youth justice services.
Rachel de Souza caused controversy when she, unlike the children’s commissioners in Wales and Scotland, refused to support banning the smacking of children, and her appointment as children’s commissioner in England was also controversial because of her close links to the Conservative Party. She has been reported as saying that ‘The Government needs to “make real change” and reform a failing social care system by opening up opportunities for every child [and that] Dame Rachel de Souza made the plea amid concerns a long-awaited independent review of children’s social care review will not deliver the necessary changes.’ Her involvement and immersion in the MacAlister review, rather than what might be expected in terms of independence, includes Mr MacAlister accompanying the children’s commissioner on visits to children’s homes. The children’s commissioner has also launched a “once-in-a-generation Beveridge Report for children” with an on-line survey in partnership with Oak National Academy – which was founded and is led by Josh MacAlister’s partner.
And if there is any thought that the Conservative government now led by Mr Johnson has since the governments of Mr Cameron and Mrs Maychanged ideology and the intention of moving the education of children outside of local authorities and the public sector, Gavin Williamson, the current secretary of state for education has stated that he wants more schools within multi-academy trusts by 2025.
The allocation of substantial government funding to Frontline as a newly founded social work training company may seem exceptional, but Mr MacAlister is the husband of Matt Hood who in 2020 set up an on-line education aids company which received start up costs of £500,000 and then a further £4.3mfrom the DfE. Both were trained as teachers through the fast track ‘Teach First’ programme but after short careers as teachers have left the front-line and have become entrepreneurs favoured by the government.
The chief social worker has Tweeted to Mr MacAlister on his birthday ‘may the sun always shine on you’ (@IsabelleTrowler 3 March 2017), something which may be a little surprising as a public Tweet from a senior civil servant to someone who has significant contracts from the government department in which she works. The networks of friendships and admiration seem to have lessened the distance and distinction which might be expected between beneficiaries of, and the civil servants who advise and decide on, assignments and funding allocations from the government.
The government and DfE sun continues to shine on Mr MacAlister. He has now been given the role by the government of shaping the vision for the future of children’s social care. He has already signed up to a ‘blue print’ for the future of children’s social services. It is a blueprint written by Boston Consulting Group along with Mr MacAlister. The Boston Consulting Group is an (American) company which has already benefitted, for example, from government contracts and funding during the coronavirus pandemic , with its management consultants being paid up to £6,250 a day to work on Serco-led Track and Trace. In the ten months between May 2020 and March 2021 BCG had received at least 29 government consultancy contracts generating an income of more than £315m.
What is the picture which emerges from those who have been advising government and who are often closely networked together? First, the views expressed about social workers have often been critical and negative, including that social workers still had to earn public trust, that newly qualifying social workers were ‘crap’, that their education and regulation should be politically controlled, and that they and their professional education have been too concerned about the impact of poverty and deprivation. Second, those who have been appointed to advise government rarely have a practice grounding or personal experience within children’s social care. Third, increasing privatisation within children’s social services is seen as positive and the way forward. This is reflected in the growing appointment and presence of international management accountants and consultancies in shaping social work and children’s services and of investment bankers and hedge funds moving into children’s social care.
There is the fear of a future of more fragmented and privatised children’s social care with children and families as commodities in a profit-focussed market place, and that this could be the vision – although not so explicitly packaged – which is the outcome of the DfE’s MacAlister review. It is a review where Mr MacAlister has already committed not to seek any reversal of ten years plus of government cuts and which is being overseen by the Treasury. If this is the outcome of the review it will leave families with less help and children more vulnerable.
It might also be of note that very few of those who alongside government are leading the re-shaping of children’s social care have any practice or personal experience within children’s social care. There are more than 80,00 children in care at any one time, many hundreds of thousands of generations of care experienced people, the identification of almost 400,000 children in need and their families, 95,000 registered social workers in England, 22,000 members of the British association of Social Workers, 152 local authorities with directors of children’s social services (albeit some shared across councils), more than 80 past and former professors of social work within the Association of Professors of Social Work, and in 2018 there were 166,000 charities in England and Wales registered with the Charity Commission of which 59% listed children as their core beneficiary (Body, 2020, p. 12).
And yet it is a small network of people with influence and connections but very limited experience who are seen to hold the expertise and wisdom to lead the re-shaping of children’s social care. The experience which seems to be most valued is in banking and the for-profit finance sectors of investment trusts and hedge funds, and the international management accountancy and consultancy companies which are champions for privatisation.
Surely the hundreds of thousands of people with practice and personal experience of children’s social care cannot all be lumped within the ‘blob’, the term Mr. Gove (with Dominic Cummings as his advisor) when Secretary of State for Education used to describe teachers. It may be shocking but not a surprise that those with personal and practice experience might be invited and allowed to give their views but the vision is to be decided by a small networked and interwoven coterie with little relevant experience or knowledge.
The issues in this paper are recounted and explored more fully in two recent books by Ray Jones:
- In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Social Work and Child Protection (Policy Press, 2019)
- A History of the Personal Social Services in England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
- Body, A. (2020) Children’s Charities in Crisis: Early Intervention and The State, Bristol, Policy Press.
Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London