UK Government inquiries/reviews are going through a tricky stage at present. For example, there was the inquiry in relation to the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil, which found everything was ‘fine’. Then there was the review into racism which said there was no evidence of structural or institutional racism. And currently we have the review into children’s social care with many querying whether it is a genuine, truly independent review.
Some readers will know that early this year I wrote a piece about Josh MacAlister’s review of children’s social care for the British Association of Social Work’s (BASW) ‘Professional Social Work’ magazine. Sadly, the editor had to ‘pull it’ at the last moment saying BASW were ‘twitchy’ about some of my comments and worried about ‘upsetting relationships’. I was, for example, concerned about the review’s independence bearing in mind MacAlister was the chief of Frontline, a fast-track training provider for children’s social workers, which is directly funded by the Department for Education (DfE), and has been vocally championed by ministers. Although a version of my piece was then published by the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) on their website, it is no surprise that I revisit some of the issues here.
The DfE says the review will tackle challenges, including the sharp increase in recent years in the number of looked after children, and the failure of the system to provide sufficient stable homes for children. Specific issues include: the capacity and capability to support families to prevent children being taken into care unnecessarily; hearing the voices of children, young people, and adults that have received the help or support of a social worker, or who have been looked after; and how partner agencies, such as health and police, interact with children’s social care. Importantly, a key question is how social care funding, workforce and other resources can be best used to change children’s lives.
It might be well and good to embark on such a review but there are certainly caveats. First, there is the spectre of cronyism concerning MacAlister’s direct appointment rather than through a formal process. Second, there are concerns about Frontline being generously funded, in part privately, when compared to university social work education. And third, a decade of Conservative governments’ austerity has led to drastic cuts to family support services, so it is little wonder this has impacted on capacity and capability to support families and prevent children being taken into care.
There are other major concerns too. When it comes to privatisation and marketisation, both key signifiers of on-going neoliberalisation, the International Monetary Fund has pointed out that overall they lead to growing inequality. Relatedly, little attention is given to the influence of global big business on social work and social care reform, this resulting in little critical exploration of the potential implications of this for social work practice and policy. Frontline is a key example of big money’s incursion into English social work by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and others, with BCG being one of the largest management consultancies in the world (see Cardy 2020; Hanley, 2020; Kerr, 2020). Surely such lineage indicates the likely direction of travel for social work and social work education in the UK being positioned to advance private business interests in the public sector.
An obvious question is why Frontline partnered with firms and corporations whose conduct is often counter to social work values? And other questions relate to what have such firms to offer an English social work training scheme, what do they receive in return and at what cost to the public trust in the profession?
As a result, and as alluded to, many consider the review is going through the motions with many of its final recommendations already known. This is evidenced by the review planning initial conclusions in the summer and completing its work within 15 months, despite a review in Scotland, focused only the care system and not the entire children’s social care system like this one, taking three years.
A more fundamental criticism is the focus on value for money and the most sustainable and cost-effective way of delivering services, including who is best placed to deliver them. A danger is the review seeing looked after children as a cost that needs reducing, with the way forward including increased privatisation/marketisation of services. This leads to key questions about the morality of profits being made on the backs of vulnerable children and their families. Admittedly, and echoing a previous request, MacAlister has asked the UK’s competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to look into whether profits for private providers are coming at the expense of quality of care in the children’s social care market. As a result, the CMA launched an investigation last month looking into the supply, price, commissioning and regulation of children’s home, fostering and unregulated accommodation placements, along with the environment for investing in services. This responds to longstanding concerns about the sufficiency of suitable placements for looked-after children, the increasing use of unregulated accommodation and the role of, and profits accrued by, private providers in children’s home and fostering markets, particularly those backed by private equity.
Two other concerns have also emerged. First, in relation to the members of the review’s ‘experts by experience’ group, some care experienced people and sector commentators are concerned about the way they were selected; from over 1,000 applications only 40 were invited for interview. This prompted criticisms that the selection criteria were unclear, decisions had been made far too quickly, people did not know how many would be selected before they applied, and valuable expertise would be lost to the review. The second concern is that the review cannot assume additional government funding to implement its recommendations with instead any extra funding having to be matched by savings elsewhere. Given the pressure on local authority budgets since 2010, exacerbated by Covid-19, and the belief that the review needs to herald significantly greater investment in children’s social care to succeed, one can see future difficulties only too well.
While it is unsurprising that the current chief social worker for children and families in England, Isabelle Trowler, seems to be a whole-hearted supporter of the review, it is disappointing that the professional association for social work, BASW, took its time to voice any significant concerns and then only after pressure from members on the ground.
As intimated, there is real risk that the ‘findings’ of the review are pre-determined and that the result will be further privatisation and more children’s social workers trained/funded by or in the same manner as Frontline. All of which fits in with the neoliberal mantra of ‘private sector good, public sector bad’, something which needs to be resisted at all costs.
Dr Steve Rogowski – April 2021. He is a social worker/independent scholar.