Nushra Mansuri Special Edition

A review of children’s social care in England or a social work apocalypse?

Waking up on Friday 15 January 2021 in a Covid world, I had no reason to think that this day would be any more remarkable than any other during lockdown where life has become to some extent, a bit more mundane and predictable; I was however, proved wrong very quickly.  My phone was buzzing as furious text messages arrived from colleagues and friends announcing ‘the end of children’s services as we know it’.  I was barely fully awake trying to make sense of the malaise in the social work world.  What possibly could have happened? 

We all now know that it was the day that the Government launched the Children’s Social Care Review in England dubbed a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul a system’ which it claimed was ‘failing vulnerable young people and creaking under the strain of rising numbers of children entering care’.   I have to admit these words alone made me groan as I have seen endless reviews, consultations, green papers, white papers by governments of various political persuasions promising to reform particular parts of children’s social care over the years but never quite delivering.  Nevertheless, Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education pledged “this review will be bold, wide-ranging and will not shy away from exposing problems where they exist.”  I wondered if he was a secret Star Trek fan as this definitely had shades of Captain Kirk going to other galaxies where no other government review had ever been before!  

Joking aside, the minister’s words did not fill me with optimism as I suspected this latest quest was based on a deficit model of social work which is not necessarily new. A former education secretary Nicky Morgan wrote in the Sunday Times in September 2015 that social workers are to face an ‘MOT’ test and risk being “weeded out” if they are not “up to scratch”.  A year later, then prime minister David Cameron also wrote in the same newspaper that children in care had been ‘let down for too long’ paving the way for the Children and Social Work Act 2017 which included post-qualifying accreditation for child and family social workers alongside a new regulator.  In 2016, Morgan also announced further reforms to children’s social work including increased funding for fast track social work programmes Frontline and Step Up and a new What Works Centre for social workers to apparently enable us to learn from best practice.  Clearly it was not just social work services that were under fire but also university social work education programmes and research. This is no great surprise to many of us given that another former education secretary Michael Gove in 2013 wanted to ‘strip out’ the dogma dominating children’s social work and dispossess children’s social workers of theories dominated by inequality and social injustices explaining the disempowerment of those with lived experience.  Consequently, he appointed Martin Narey to conduct a review of social work education which was published in 2014 which created a lot of disquiet in the social work world.

I have to admit, that I have felt a lot more optimistic in previous times about social work’s future in England, ironically following notable child abuse tragedies.  I cast my mind back to the Victoria Climbié Inquiry led by Lord Laming culminating in a lengthy report of 432 pages with 108 recommendations in 2003.  It was a very difficult time for social workers as once again we faced the opprobrium of the media and public opinion, nevertheless Lord Laming himself was not on the warpath with the profession and even stated that accountability should not lie with those working on the front line but rather with those in senior positions.  His report also devoted (arguably) more equal coverage to children’s social care, health and the police.  A number of things emerged from this review; the social work qualification changed from a two year diploma to a three year undergraduate degree programme; Every Child Matters became the new mantra which was widely embraced by both those working in social work, education and the third sector as a broad set of principles to support children; new concepts were introduced such as Extended Schools which was based on the idea of a wraparound service for children who might benefit from provisions such as breakfast clubs and after school childcare ; children’s social work was moved to the DfE from the DHSC which was a major change separating it from adult social care and aligning it with education.  Consequently, Ofsted became the inspectorate of children’s social care.  Some feared this move would lead to social work being dwarfed by education and the new inspectorate being intent on measuring things that were measurable rather than understanding the complexities of social work; The Children Act 2004 came on stream and introduced some key legislative changes including  a Children’s Commissioner in England (although without the mention of rights initially, that came later in 2012), Children’s Trusts Boards (which have re-emerged as a different animal) were developed to stimulate partnership arrangements between various organisations in order to improve outcomes for children although there was a lot of local variation and finally, Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) replaced Area Child Protection Committees which were arguably stronger than their predecessor given that they were on a statutory footing.  This period also coincided in 2003 with the independent regulation of social work for the first time by the General Social Care Council (GSCC).  Whilst I did not necessarily agree with all of Laming’s recommendations, (which sadly not all have come to bear fruit as a result of resourcing), I felt that on the whole they were well intentioned and principled.

In 2007, we found ourselves back in familiar territory as another child death had taken place in Haringey, Peter Connelly.  This brought out the worst in some well known red tops as well as prominent MPs.  The Sun went after the social workers involved in the case as well as the Director of Children’s Services, Sharon Shoesmith in a particularly vitriolic campaign including a petition signed by 1.6 million people that was delivered to number 10 calling for them o be sacked.  The then Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, duly obliged and announced on live TV that Shoesmith had been removed from her post, without following due process.  Shoesmith subsequently challenged her dismissal in court and won her case in 2011.  Social worker Sylvia Henry also took The Sun to the High Court in 2011 and received an apology from the newspaper as well as substantial damages.  This, of course, got very little coverage in comparison to the onslaught the individuals faced at the time and that will be the abiding memory of many. 

So how could I possibly feel any sort of optimism as a result of all of this?  Firstly, what I observed was that social workers themselves were angry and had had enough and found their voice including myself!  I was just returning from maternity leave in 2008 when the assault of our profession was in full swing and found myself regularly shouting at the radio.  I worked for BASW back then and upon my return to work ended up having to put my money where my mouth was by doing a succession of live interviews on Sky News and other media outlets, on some occasions, following Ed Balls and Sharon Shoesmith, challenging the discourse of blame being apportioned to social work and the lack of proportionality, context and analysis of child protection social work.  What I was really proud of at the time was our profession.  I remember so many social workers getting in touch with BASW talking about the realities of the work that we do and some of the impossible pressures and working conditions.  Some brave social workers even appeared on Panorama (in silhouette) to talk about these realities. 

The Chair of BASW’s Children and Families Committee declared that we needed to do a roadshow and talk to social workers in all 9 regions of England about their experiences of children’s social work and what needed to change.  We duly did this and shared our evidence of social workers ‘lived experience’ with the Social Work Taskforce (SWTF) in 2009 which had been set up to improve the recruitment, training and the overall quality and status of the profession in England led by Moira Gibb, herself a social worker and former director of social services.  Lord Laming also re-emerged with a review of child protection which for most of us painted a fair and accurate picture of what was going on at ground level: “low staff morale, poor supervision, high caseloads, excessive bureaucracy, and under resourcing”.  The work of the SWTF (succeeded by the Social Work Reform Board) and Laming’s review led to in my opinion, some valuable changes including: greater protection of newly qualified social workers in terms of the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE); a review of the Integrated Children’s System which had been roundly criticised by social workers and academics such as Professor Sue White as unwieldy; and finally, the introduction of Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England by the Local Government Association, including a ‘health check’ to ‘assess whether the practice conditions and working environment of the social work workforce are safe, effective, caring, responsive and well-led’.  All of these initiatives merit a gold star in my book and are more reflective of an approach which is about listening to the voices of the profession and, to some degree, being led by social workers who at least, had prominent positions on the Social Work Taskforce and Social Work Reform Board.  Therefore, these changes felt much more sector led and from the bottom up, although I am disappointed that the ‘health check’ has never really got off the ground, due to its lack of teeth as there are no real sanctions if practice conditions are unsafe. 

I did worry in 2010 with a change in government that some of the momentum that had been gained in trying to address some of the serious issues plaguing children’s social work would be lost, but that was not my initial impression.  One of the first acts of the coalition Government was for Michael Gove to commission an independent review of child protection and social work in England led by Professor Elieen Munro.  Its remit was to examine how the barriers and bureaucracy preventing social workers spending valuable time with children could be removed.  Nothing wrong with that and very much in keeping with the trajectory I have previously described.  The Children’s Minister Tim Loughton also called for Serious Case Reviews to be published in 2010, which I have to say I agreed with – that was certainly the position that BASW took at the time, as it had been notoriously difficult for individuals to get hold of them prior to this, which begged the question, ‘How can lessons be learned if we can’t even gain access to the reviews?’  My recollection of the Munro review was one of collaboration: BASW was invited to meet with Professor Munro on a number of occasions and share our evidence which was based on the direct experience of BASW members working in children’s services, together with input from academics and other social work perspectives.  I remember the BASW parliamentary officer excitedly texting me from a live session in parliament where the review was being discussed to say that our evidence was being quoted and that it was very important to the Children’s Minister to have the support of the profession. 

Nevertheless, my optimism had started to wane once David Cameron and George Osborne imposed austerity on public services in 2010, which has proved to be devastating to preventative children’s services and the third sector, from which so much important provision has simply disappeared due to the withdrawal of funding.  This contrasts with the previous administration’s pledge to end child poverty by 2020.  Sadly, the reverse has happened as more and more children and families are living in poverty in the UK despite the Government’s protestations to any form of scrutiny provided notably by UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston in 2019 as the Government dismissed his findings as ‘barely believable’.

Equally, I have lost faith in the progress that I believe was being made on the social policy front following the Munro review and the work of the SWTF and Reform Board which felt much more collaborative and inclusive even though I also had my points of difference. my assessment of things now is that the Government has reverted to a top down, finger wagging approach to the profession. I believe this is quite deliberate, in order to usher in further privatisation with the increased marketisation of provision which, in my view, will denigrate the rights of children.  I have witnessed a contracting culture in the last ten years where organisations with no proven track record in social work and social care are being favoured above those that have which does not make any sense to me.  The direction of travel also significantly changed on the policy front with the advent of chief social workers and the improvement agenda which feels like the reverse of Munro with greater prescription from central Government and certainly very little collaboration with the profession but rather a ‘command and control’ model.

Returning to the current review, unlike, others in the sector who according to Patrick Butler (15.1.21) broadly welcomed it, I don’t.  It has left me feeling both disappointed and concerned.  I was shocked to discover,  that my professional body, BASW, was not even invited to attend the launch of the review on 15 January 2021. Why not when so much of it is about the organisation of social work services, its structures and how it is delivered?? I don’t believe any other profession would accept standing to one side whilst it’s functions and delivery were being reviewed and overhauled.  We have more recently learnt that there is no specific workstream for social work and there is only one practising social worker in the other workstreams which beggars belief.  I feel that the review is deliberately being mis-sold to us as a care review when it is actually encompasses much more than that.  I question the appointment of its Chair in terms of his credentials to oversee such an important review when some of the previous chairs I have mentioned were widely recognised in the sector as being highly experienced, knowledgeable and suitably independent of the Government of the day. 

I therefore, can only draw the conclusion that has already been drawn by others: this review is a foregone conclusion and merely the mechanism to drive the Government’s agenda to privatise statutory social work and the delivery of social work education.  We have all seen the blueprints and the contract between the chair and the Government making it clear that this is about efficiencies rather than investment.  I don’t believe that this review will be brave enough to turn the tables on the Government and address the questions that need to be answered;   the chronic underfunding of children’s social care, the inevitable increase in referrals in the face of a depletion of support and early help.   Meanwhile the usual suspects sadly continue being drawn into the child protection system, alongside rising levels of poverty, widening social divisions characterised by food banks and insecure and lowly paid employment for many.

Nushra Mansuri

Social Work Academic