Since the Covid-19 crisis, procedural safeguards for looked after children in England have seen significant reductions through Statutory Instrument 445, which was introduced without any consultation with care experienced people (Sen, 2020). This has given rise to concerns around how genuinely participative a review of the care system in England will be, which has been promised by the current Government. I have been asked to write about my involvement in the Scottish Independent Care Review, widely regarded as a highly positive example of how governments can genuinely engage a range of stakeholders in the care system, and most importantly, those with care experience themselves.
‘A Review like no other’. A bold, ambitious claim made from the outset. Many were dubious, including myself, about how transformational this Review and its implementation would be. There have been multiple reviews, inquiries and commissions into how best to improve the ‘care system’, yet we still have many of the same problems –too many care experienced young people growing up feeling unloved, unheard and in some cases further traumatised by their experience of becoming ‘looked after’. WhoCares? Scotland and the Scottish care experienced community spent years relentlessly campaigning for a whole system review, and in 2016 the First Minister of Scotland finally made a promise to commission one. The Independent Care Review began in 2017 and recently concluded in March 2020. It was entirely independent to Scottish Government and accountable only to those who it served, the care experienced population.
Fiona Duncan was appointed Chair and was determined from the outset that this Review would be delivered by a team, of which no less than half had personal lived experience of the ‘system’. Following the initial orientation period, the preceding stages of Discovery and Journey, of which I was privileged enough to be a part of both, were formed of a vast range of both experts by profession, experts by experience, and several experts of both. Discovery lasted a year, and was spent defining the vision and scope of the Review alongside care-experienced people, followed by the Journey stage, which was an 18 month process spent doing ‘deep-dives’ into the main themes and issues that were continuously arising from what Voice was saying. The voice of those with lived experience drove the Review from start to finish. The sheer existence of the Review came from years of campaigning by care experienced people, and the scope and work undertaken was both guided and steered by Voice at all levels.
Over the lifetime of the Review, over 5,500 people were heard from directly, over half of whom were children and adults who had experience of ‘care’. The Review engaged with, and listened to, people across all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, from infants all the way up to elderly care experienced adults in their late eighties. People shared their stories and experiences in a wide range of ways, from face to face conversations, to submitting music, poetry and written letters. The Review always had questions and asks for people, but they were not mandatory for individuals to contribute to the Review. Many care experienced people simply wanted to share their story, to finally be heard. The Review did not force people to answer any questions. The questions were designed as a helpful prompt or steer if they were wanted by participants – simply put, the Review listened to anything and everything that people wanted to share and all voices were of equal and utmost importance. A dedicated participation team was created as part of the Review’s wider secretariat, with additional support from the 1000 voices team based at WhoCaresScotland? providing further expertise and enabling us to create a participation ‘hub’ comprising of both teams from both the Review and WhoCares?.
During Discovery, I was nominated by Scotland’s children’s charity Aberlour to be a member of the group responsible for shaping the scope and breadth of the Review. I was nominated due to my own lived experienced of growing up in care in England and my professional experience of then being a Social Work Student and youth worker. Back at Discovery stage, participation was based on asking care experienced people from all over Scotland about two fundamental questions:
What does a root and branch review of the care system mean to you?
What would make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up?
The rich knowledge of voices were then presented verbatim, in reports to both the Chair of the Review and the Discovery Group, to unpick and help shape into the direction which Voice was leading us in. Over the year which Discovery stage lasted the group were able to design the next stage of the Review, Journey, to centre on the 10 big themes that were emerging from Voice. These 10 themes were then made into working groups, co-chaired by an expert by profession and an expert by lived experience (or again, both), which consisted of a mix of professionals from various organisations in and around the care system, and those with lived experience of care. I was privileged enough to be asked to co-chair the working group on love, and for the 18 months between summer 2018 and Christmas 2019, myself and other members of the Love Working Group were able to take the time needed to delve much deeper into the topic of love in care and all of the complexities and nuances which surround it.
In early 2019, I became a full time member of the Review secretariat team, splitting my time between co-chairing the work on Love and being part of the dedicated participation team based at the Review. Having recently qualified as a social worker from the University of Strathclyde, I was committed to seeing the Review through to the end and decided to work at the Review full time. By the time I joined the participation team, I had seen first-hand that the approach being taken really was unique, and that voice alone was genuinely shaping and directing a Review ‘like no other’.
My specific role within the participation team was to lead on engagement work with those with lived experience of secure care and those with ‘seldom heard voices’ – by which we meant those for whom their voice is often not heard at all, or is not heard enough. There were also designated team members for engagement with the workforce, families, and children and young people currently in care. Although we each had a specific focus to lead on, the team was very much interdependent and we all worked together closely to both support sessions and individual engagements, as well as producing the written outputs for the Journey group members and the Chair.
In order to keep the Review’s reach as wide as possible we followed one simple guideline; the Review would listen to anyone who wanted to share their views. If someone had something they wanted to say or share, we listened. We went to where they were – regardless of time or location. We travelled to every corner of Scotland, we skyped, facetimed, called, texted, heard songs, read poetry, watched video submissions. No-one was excluded. All possible barriers to contribute were removed. People had a right to be heard, and it was the Review’s duty to enable this to happen.
The Review also held numerous events and roadshows. People were not expected to come to the Review, the Review went to them. Roadshows were a brilliant way to take the Review ‘on the road’. They provided an opportunity for anyone to come along to a celebratory event, to hear directly from the Review as well as engage with the Participation Hub directly. Achievements and work produced by the care experienced population and community groups were celebrated, showcased and championed, as well as used to inform the Review’s findings. They also provided a brilliant opportunity for people to make new friends, learn, network, and share good practice. All manner of people came along to make connections with the care experienced community and learn how to make changes happen NOW, rather than waiting for the Review to conclude. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, also attended several of the Review’s events, to show continued support and commitment to the care experienced community.
The recent announcement of the independent implementation and oversight body by Scottish Government is hugely welcomed, albeit temporarily different than expected due to current circumstances. What matters the most is the continued commitment to Voice being central within both the implementation and oversight team. I don’t consider myself to have hopes, per se, for the implementation body and programme of work; with Fiona Duncan and several other colleagues transitioning across, I am certain that the ethos and inclusive approach will continue. My hopes lie wider than this. I hope that this Review and subsequent implementation can act as a driver for change that others can learn from. To learn how to do a Review right, give Voice the respect and importance it deserves, and to serve as a blueprint for others.
Being care experienced myself, I would not have continued to be part of a Review that I did not believe would make the difference it claimed it would make. It was not a Review conducted from behind closed doors, listening only to those whose voice served the pre-determined conclusions of the ‘experts’ who think they knew best. This Review said it would be different, and it was. This was a Review not driven by policy, practice or numbers, but by the views and experiences of children and young people who experience care. It was created by, shaped, driven and delivered by those who truly are the experts; those who have lived it. This Review did not belong to the Chair, did not belong to the Government, or to the staff team that made up the secretariat. This Review belongs to the care experienced community of Scotland.
Participation & Policy Associate, CELCIS