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

Jane Tunstill Special Edition

Family support services must be the foundation stone of any child welfare intervention


The 2021 Care Review follows in the footsteps of a centuries-long list of government reviews of the achievements and failures of the state in respect of its responsibility for children and young people. Political and public debate around what constitutes the appropriate relationship between state, family and child? represents a perennial strand in UK social policy, and the fault lines are depressingly well trodden. Parents’ rights v children’s needs; child saving v family support; developmental v protective services; in-home v foster family v institutional care (McGovern &Meezan, 1983) these battle lines recur throughout the evolution of the social work task, from the Poor Law to the present. Each successive policy decision has its roots in the prevailing ideological and social circumstances of the time, whether post-war social policy aspirations or the dominant current neo-liberal values. At the core, as many including McCleod (1982)  have asked, lies the same overarching question: whose child?  She surveyed the perennial legislative tug of war, which can be tracked through the opposing intentions of successive children’s legislation in 1948, 1963, 1969, 1975, 1989 and throughout the 21st century.  

Behind all the ultimate policy choices selected, lurks the same set of questions: what are the roles and responsibilities of families in meeting the needs of their children?  What is the role of the state in supporting families to do so?  Are there negative consequences for all if these responsibilities do not attract the necessary public resources? These challenges are as relevant for the 2021 Care Review team, as for the Charity Organisation Society in 1834.

In 2021 the terminology deployed might include ‘radical non -intervention’; but in 1913, Mrs. Pember Reeve put it more bluntly:

As things are now, we have machinery by which the state in its capacity of co-guardian coerces parents and urges on them duties which, unaided, they cannot perform. Parents are to feed, clothe and house their children decently or they can be dealt with by law. But when, as a matter of fact, it is publicly demonstrated that millions of parents cannot do this and the children are neither fed, clothed or housed decently, the state, which is guardian in chief, finds it convenient to look the other way, shirking its own responsibility, but falling foul, in special circumstances, of parents who have failed to comply with the law.

Plus ca change?

The tension between family support and child saving remains at the heart of child care policy and practice in the UK in 2021.   And this must be starting point for the Care Review team from whatever angle its members appraise current policy and practice. Whether the terms of reference are interpreted as focussing on ‘in care’ issues, children’s social care in its entirety, or any other dimension of the child/family /state continuum, the team must look seek to look behind statistical current trends, understand the wider issues such as poverty and inequality, and confront what many see as a punitive and uncaring system for children, young people and their families. Unfortunately, Pember Reeve’s words are still relevant   in 2021: 

As the 2021 Nuffield Foundation report has very recently concluded:

poverty remains a significant risk factor and preventing harm and promoting positive outcomes for young children at risk requires a holistic and collaborative approach across government and public services

Child protection enquiries in England more than doubled (125% rise) between 2009 /10 AND 2019/20. At the same time spending on preventative (or what has often been called ‘up-stream services’ to support families under pressure and struggling in England has fallen from £3.8 billion in 2010 to £2.1bn in 2018, while spending on ‘down-stream’ services such as children in care has been protected. The bald statistics on child protection enquiry numbers obscure the demographic of the children and families who are exposed to such  judgements. In 1984 the Short Report concluded that ‘children in care are the children of the poor ‘. In 2021, as the Nuffield Foundation (op cit) has highlighted  , poverty continues to be a driving factor with children living in the poorest neighbourhoods at least ten times more likely to be in care than children in the richest ones. The Nuffield Foundation report echoes the concerns of Cathy Ashley from  Family Rights Group and of  ATD 4th World that poor families are viewed entirely through a lens which prioritises risk and blame over and above the need for  effective support.

Bywaters et al. 2018   also identify the social gradient,  whereby children and families in poverty are significantly more likely to be the subject of state intervention and in need of  support services to address the consequences of poverty and deprivation (Morris et al., 2018) Bywaters’ and colleagues’ research also highlights the issue of stigma, which deters family members from seeking to access services, and has also been found to deter social workers from robustly addressing the child and family poverty they encounter in families with whom they work. There is also anecdotal evidence that parents struggling materially are deterred from seeking help because they fear forced adoption for their children, given ministers’ constant high profile emphasis   on adoption as the best outcome. The long-lasting negative impact of poverty and inequality on child development and child health has been documented and highlighted by Marmot (2020) which also highlights the social gradient in health, whereby the lower a person’s social position, the worse his or her health.

A forward strategy?

It should be stressed that the current structure of UK social welfare, as configured by  Tory governments over the last decade, both complicates and potentially prevents the emergence of a progressive family support strategy. The review team have a moral duty to address/overcome/undermine the threat which current trends pose to the design, let alone implementation, of such a strategy.  The following two key examples exemplify the way in which recent government policy can both hamper an accurate appraisal of the problems, as well as block the path to solving them..

  • Definitional obstacles.

State-resourced activity to support children in their own homes, (including social work and other relevant multi-disciplinary input from health and education for example), has historically attracted a range of definitions, through’ prevention’, ‘family support’, and since the 1989 Children Act, ‘children in need’. In large part these linguistic transitions have been helpful. They have broadened the scope of such work away from a narrow emphasis on ‘preventing a care episode’ to an inclusive concern with promoting and safeguarding child welfare (albeit with the caveat that the task of defining a child in need has sometimes been interpreted to narrow- not maximise -entitlement!) More recent terminology includes early help and early intervention. These more recent terms can potentially obscure and pose additional challenge: does ‘early help’ specify ‘early’ as in child’s age and does this exclude ‘older child need’? Does early intervention denote the timing of action and imply that any delay extinguishes any point in acting? None of these new ‘definitional debates’ should be deployed to undermine the central responsibility of the state for promoting the welfare of children in their own families throughout childhood and across the transition to adulthood.

  • Fragmentation of provision: a retreat from universality

A second potentially destructive set of obstacles emanate from  deliberate choices made by Tory governments over the last ten years, which have been driven by a neoliberal political agenda and which have led to the embracing and enforcement by government of a policy of austerity. This agenda has manifested itself in the priority given to provision by the private sector, often to the exclusion or reduction of existing public provision. The recent history of social work and children’s social care has been extensively recorded by many (Jones 2019; Purcell 2020). One of the more obvious outputs of this neoliberal agenda has been the fragmentation of previously ‘joined-up provision’ by the local state.  ‘Public provision’ has been subject to central government asset stripping, underfunding and to having its credibility consistently questioned and undermined. A process of ‘projectivisation and ‘atomisation’ has been set in train, with considerable positive coverage by politicians of some discrete projects, such as the Troubled Families Programme; Strengthening Families: protecting children; Social Work Practices; Reclaiming Social Work; Signs of Safety; and PAUSE.

These individual projects are problematic for the design and resourcing of a coherent national family support strategy. They both reflect and aggravate the neoliberal agenda of ‘private is best and preferred’ and at the same time they undermine any remnants of ‘universalism’ as a policy value. Alongside this “atomising of provision” government has, in addition, often sought to privilege certain styles of ‘evaluation ‘( i.e. quantitative, experimental and often focussed on cost- effectiveness’) which are themselves often the enemies of holistic, joined up provision. In line with this strategy, highly publicised research funds get allocated regularly to the ‘What Works Centre’ (WWC) for the evaluation of some individual projects. Child and family need is too widespread to be the test bed for piecemeal provision, and/or evaluation.  The review team should therefore avoid being tempted to turn to the WWC for objective magic answers. As I have argued elsewhere, the WWC is yet one more compromised element in the projectivisation agenda.

The way forward: a values driven approach

So, given the complexity of the challenges outlined above, how might the Review Team approach their task in respect of understanding the need for a coherent family support strategy as a prerequisite for an optimum care strategy? This is not a new challenge, albeit the dominant political and ideological context is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. By contrast, in 1990 there was a cross-sector focus on the implementation of the 1989 Children Act, and general agreement that the principles underlying its design should inform all work with children and families, summarised by a cross sector working party, convened by NCVCCO (now Children England ) . The working party, comprising managers, educators, researchers and campaigners took the name  In Need Implementation Group and produced a guide to  implementation, which was based on the following (explicitly articulated) value framework: 

Universalism:  we all use and need services, whether we are managing to lead relatively ‘normal’ lives or we are in crisis and under stress. Families of children in need have full rights to the wide range and diversity of universalist provisions ( health, social security, employment, housing, education, leisure) as well as those more specialist services to help them over particular difficulties

Equality & Equity of access to services: everyone in our community has rights to accessible family support services; parents requesting help should not be stigmatised and their access to a wide range of services must be facilitated.

The normality of difficulties in parenting: services should support and supplement families’ endeavours, especially when parenting difficulties are compounded by poverty and deprivation.

Participation: parents usually know what their needs are and their views should be taken seriously

The conclusions of this 1990 working group were commended by Tory ministers at the time. The group acknowledged the need for a broad institutional, developmental model of service delivery for children and their families and rejected a narrow residual approach focussed on the individual in isolation. Their view was that attempting, wherever appropriate, to support children in their own families, was one strategy to achieve such a goal. The 2021 Care Review team might do worse than take as its starting point that same value framework: it is to be hoped they will have the courage and integrity to embrace the same convictions which informed the  campaigners in 1990.


In Need Implementation Group (1990) The Children Act and children’s needs: make it the answer not the problem.  London. The Policy Institute at Kings

Jones, R. (2019) In Whose Interest? The privatisation of child protection and social work. Bristol. Policy Press

Marmot M. (2020) Health Equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 Years On. London. Institute of Health Equity

McCleod, V. (1982) ‘Whose Child: the family in child care legislation and social work practice. London. Study Commission on the Family

McGovern B. & Meezan, W. (1983) Child Welfare: current dilemnas, future directions. Itasca. Peacock Publishers

Morris, M., Mason., Bywaters, P. Featherstone, B . Daniel, B Brady, G .Bunting , L. Hooper, J. Nughmana, M. Scourfield, J. Webb, C. (2018) ‘Social Work, poverty and child welfare interventions’. Child & Family Social Work. Volume 23, Issue 3.

Pember Reeve, M. (1913) Round About a Pound a Week. London.   Fabian Society

Purcell, C. (2020) The Politics of Children’s Services Reform. Bristol. Policy Press

Tunstill, J. (2019) ‘Pruned, policed and privatised: the knowledge base for children and families social work in England and Wales in 2019. Social Work and Social Sciences Review.20(2),57-76

Jane Tunstill,

Emeritus Professor of Social Work,

Royal Holloway, London University.  

Janet Melville-Wiseman Special Edition

Listening to the voices of care experienced individuals and communities – the disconcerting values of the Government children’s social care Review

The Department for Education and the appointed chair of the Government Children’s Social Care Review have come under sustained criticism for their approach to this longed for review.  Both the tone and approach have been criticised for their clumsy disregard for the esteem and wellbeing of our care experienced individuals and communities.  One-sided power dynamics have also been inherent in the review thus far and these are always difficult to spot and elusive to challenge.  However, the risk of damaging consequences is tangible and must be confronted and reframed even though finding a way to do that with meaningful positive impact is challenging.  This article offers some principles to underpin such reframing particularly in relation to the attempt to capture the voices of care experienced individuals. 

One-sided power

It is only government who can order and facilitate a government review and choose the person to chair it.  However, it is also government who dictate policy that dictates how the care system runs and dictates the financial and other resources it will allocate to that system.  In that context many have called into question the legitimacy of this longed for review, the suitability of the chair, and the ensuing compromise of its status as independent. However, within such questioning there remain genuine concerns about the [mis]handling of power and the multiple voices who will not be heard.  In a recent Tweet in response to calls for more information and greater transparency the appointed chair stated:

“I understand everyone is eager to know more but it defeats the point of handing power to the Experts by Experience Group if I take big decisions like this before they are in place.” 16th February 2021@JoshMacAllister

It is good that there is a commitment to the Experts by Experience (EbE) Group having power but rather than removing barriers to them achieving their full power Mr MacAlister sees it as fundamentally his power to give to them. Unfortunately, this is the antithesis of good social work practice in relation to the achievement of agency by care experienced people who are likely to have variable but sustained experiences of prior disempowerment.  If care services are to improve as a result of the review it should have focused from the start on the removal of structural barriers to full participation to enable agency and power. 

Personal connection

It is many years since I had my own experiences of receiving care and social work services. I rarely speak of them in any setting but they were both beneficial and exceptionally harmful.  My own harmful experiences resonate with many who have articulated theirs more courageously and coherently than I can.  They have done this through their work to enhance understanding of experiences of care, as advocates and champions of the need for a care review, and through supportive networks and mentoring.  My journey took me through working in care homes (some within the private sector were short lived as I would not collude with abusive practices), qualifying as a social worker and now in an academic leadership role.  However, one of the things I have found most difficult to witness, throughout my journey and within this review, has been the promise and then denial of opportunities to speak to individual experiences – to bear witness to truths in order to create a better future for those yet to experience care systems.

The drive to capture care experienced truths and the need for ethical governance

One consistent claim by the chair has been to place care experienced people at the heart of the review and to provide many opportunities for their voices and views to be included.  However, this has been in the context of some significant barriers, reinforcement of those barriers, and an uninformed approach about how to do this safely and sensitively.  Somewhat late in the day plans were put in place to identify sources of ‘support’ for the possible re-traumatising of individuals who may wish to share their experiences.  However, this can really only be helpful if other processes are in place to begin with. 

If this were a research project (and there are many similarities – gathering evidence (data), recruiting participants (the EbE Board and then others), publishing findings (initial, interim, final reports), some basic governance arrangements would have been put in place.  First, the approach would have been subjected to peer and then independent review especially as there is only one person leading the review and not co-chairs or a team of people holding each other to account.  Next, the suitability of those interviewing participants or running ‘focus’ groups would have been ascertained.  It is unclear if there will be meetings with children on their own but presumably a decision will need to be made about consent, participation, and the robustness of evidence if others are present.  There is no transparency about whether DBS checks have been undertaken and who will be asked to consent if children participate.  Indemnity insurance would have been evidenced in case harm is done to participants.   There should have been a published safeguarding plan to cover the possibility of disclosures that require intervention.  At this point support for possible distress caused by sharing experiences would have been identified. An anonymisation or pseudo-anonymisation plan would have been in place (and scrutinised) to ensure compliance with data protection including how to manage the complex nature of the scope of confidentiality when capturing care experiences.  All of this should have been transparent to ensure those sharing their stories could give informed and continuing consent to participate and have their stories used.  Finally, it has not been clear how and if care experienced people will be recompensed for their time.  This is ‘bread and butter’ work for researchers and ethics committees.

The causes of division

Our shared and individual experiences were shaped by people, time and place and to a large extent good or bad luck.  We disclose them if and when it is right for us to do so.  We have shared experiences that no-one can take away.  It has therefore been puzzling (and distressing) to see divisions emerge between people with such unifying experiences and collective hopes and priorities for the future.  It is even more distressing to see the same people blaming themselves for this division.  One alternative way to understand this though is to consider a transactional analysis model.  I do not agree with Eric Berne’s gendered descriptions in ‘Games People Play, but perhaps there is a kind of inadvertent game of ‘Let’s you and him fight’ going on here. In the third possibility for why this ‘game’ is played Berne describes a scenario where two men are manipulated into fighting over a woman only to find that she goes off with a third while they are fighting.  The chair tweeted in February: 

“Incredible to have had over 1,000 applications to join the Experts by Experience group! I’ve been inspired reading about the amazing work that these experts do to bring about positive change for children & families. Thank you to all who applied.” 12th February 2021@JoshMacAllister

It later transpired that this number would be rapidly whittled down to a shortlisted 40 who would then be interviewed for the roughly 15 places.  Anger and distrust soon emerged as there was little transparency about how this was undertaken and how the EbE Board was ‘chosen’ and by whom all in a very short space of time.  It was then some time before other opportunities to participate emerged.  Again these were for small numbers of people and were not inclusive, only giving opportunities to participate during the working day and for those with access to online booking and participation.   

The risk of uncritical notions of love

The chair’s early statements about what the future might include for children (colloquially referred to as “Josh’s early plans for the review” and his “big questions”) included ensuring children experience Safety, Stability and Love.  I always have significant concerns about the uncritical use of the word ‘love’ especially when it is used to define what any vulnerable person might need.  I have previously undertaken research on where the need for love has been exploited by people in positions of power including social workers.  A quick review of current Social Work England misconduct cases in the public domain found the following:

You did not maintain professional boundaries in that you sent Service User A a Facebook message on 29 September 2017 as set out in Schedule A.

“Hi [Service User A]. Both you and your daughter have found such a soft place in my heart. I always wanted to say this, but couldn’t because of my position. I have missed seeing you since I left [Private]; hope you’re doing well. You have always been so beautiful; you truly are the most beautiful person and I always longed to kiss you whenever I saw you. I miss seeing both of you and your loving daughter so much; I’ve always loved seeing you…

Typically, the social worker did not attend the hearing but in mitigation stated his marriage was breaking down and he was drinking.  However, the service user in question when interviewed stated:

…her trust in professionals had been ruined. She recalled Mr Kelly’s involvement,

all the intimate details she had shared about her life, her thoughts and feelings.

He had been in her home and she had trusted him, to now know that all the time

Mr Kelly had these feelings was difficult for her to come to terms with.

In determining his removal the legal advisor:

… drew the panel’s attention to paragraph 105 of the Sanctions Guidance

which states:

‘Abuse of professional position to pursue a sexual or improper emotional or

social relationship with a service user or a member of their family or a work

colleague is a serious abuse of trust. Many people will be accessing social care

for reasons that increase their vulnerability and that of their family. Pursuit of

a sexual or improper emotional or social relationship with a vulnerable person

is likely to require a more serious sanction against a social worker.’

This case is one example of a professional exploiting the trust of a vulnerable person, and her and her child’s struggles.  He imposed his own ideas about where and when expressions of ‘love’ may be appropriate and it was harmful to this family.  It is hard as a profession to deal with the fact that some social workers will abuse people in this way and justify it by calling it ‘love’, but this is sadly sometimes the case.  It is therefore important for the review to recognise that uncritical approaches to notions of love for those who are vulnerable can be problematic, and can be used to provide cover for serious professional misconduct.


At the start of this process there were fundamental questions about the approach being taken and lack of trust in the skills and experience of the chair.  These views have not been held universally but there is now division within the care experienced community which is a fundamental reflection of that.  The chair has previously been party to divisiveness within social work education perceived by many as at odds with social work values.  Hurtful and divisive discourses remain perpetuated by Frontline that their students are uniquely the ‘brightest and the best’ people for social work. 

Minikin (2021) articulates useful ideas about divisive approaches in her paper on Relative Privilege and the Seduction of Normativity:

“…when the values and goals of the organization sit well with individuals there can be a greater sense of calm, collaboration, and a feeling of achieving together.

However, when there is a conflict in values and goals, tensions rise and the containment of those can be a source of significant stress for the individual. People may feel both a pull to adapt to the norm in an effort to belong and stay with the group and a conflicting pull to individuate and express difference. This can be a great source of tension, especially if the longing is for both.”

So the message to the review is that unless and until social work values are more central within the review processes, and those with relative privilege within it address the tangible conflicts, division will continue and the review will not be fully respected.

It is also vital that the review navigates potentially dangerous waters around uncritical notions of love and does not continue to fall into the trap of it becoming shot with its current soft focus lens.

Janet Melville-Wiseman

Jo Warner Special Edition

Legitimate outrage? The Government Review of Children’s Social Care

With the Government Review of Children’s Social Care (hereafter the ‘Care Review’) comes a great deal of power. Any government-sponsored review or inquiry has the opportunity to define the relevant issues and shape the debates about them, potentially for many years to come. Most importantly, a process such as the Care Review has the power to provide a foundation for real and meaningful change.

A central question in thinking about power is that of its legitimacy, so we must ask what legitimacy the Care Review has or may acquire, and why it matters. If the Care Review does not have legitimacy, or cannot acquire it, then it will flounder and be destined to gather dust like so many reviews before it. Indeed, we should remember that this destiny is often baked into the initiation of a review or inquiry by governments. A review is perfect for kicking an issue into the long grass and appearing to act on it by creating lots of movement and activity. But we should not confuse such movement with action. At its worst, the Care Review will not just be benign in its effects. A review can be disempowering precisely because of the potential for effecting real change that is then not realised. Such a failed process can leave people feeling betrayed and thereby intensify the sense of unfairness and injustice that precipitated the process of review in the first place.

Many of the arguments that have already swirled around the Care Review are concerned fundamentally with questions of its legitimacy. Before going further, it is useful to break down the idea of legitimacy into its component parts by asking three interrelated questions[1]. Firstly, is the power vested in the Care Review legally held? Secondly, will its use of that power reflect ‘shared values’, and whose values will come to dominate? Thirdly, will the legitimacy of the Care Review be widely recognised and acknowledged, particularly once it has been completed?

The Care Review is undoubtedly legal, not least because it has been initiated by a democratically elected government. However, the question of the degree to which the Care Review can be said to reflect shared values or ‘normative beliefs’ is far less clear. In the decisions taken in the early days of setting up the review, questions of values and representation were deeply contentious. Could the Chair be seen as truly independent of government? Was the selection of people with lived experience of the care system fair and transparent? Immediately, the question of ‘whose values?’ has been fully in the foreground. The third criterion for legitimacy, that of the expression of consent and acknowledgement, can perhaps only be answered fully at the Review’s conclusion. But there will be critical tests along the way.

Two tests link directly to the question of the Care Review’s legitimacy. The first test will be whether the analysis of the issues as the process unfolds is critical and rational. Will the review seek out and then accept the evidence about Children’s Social Care in England and then represent this evidence robustly to the government that sponsored it? It is in this way that the review will express its independence (or not). The second test is in the domain of political emotions, specifically that of outrage at social injustice. Through its processes, can the Care Review distil and then harness the sense of outrage that must inevitably follow a critical scrutiny of the facts that will be placed before it? Even more important is whether the review can then represent its findings in a way that potentially changes the conversation about Children’s Social Care, ideally so that the conversation encompasses a wider set of constituencies. This is important, since politicians tell us that Children’s Social Care is not a ‘vote winner’ as it does not resonate with the public except during periods of crisis.

Processes of review and inquiry can sometimes acquire a legitimacy well-beyond their original terms of reference and even change the conversation about values. The Macpherson Inquiry[2] into the brutal racist murder of Stephen Lawrence has had a lasting impact. Its definition of institutional racism has been powerful enough to see off many attempts to delegitimise it, including the most recent effort by the current government in the form of its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities[3]. As Hugh Muir[4] has argued, Macpherson’s growing sense of outrage as the inquiry process uncovered the facts provided a vital underpinning to his conclusions. It was the robust, forensic synthesis of the facts of social injustice combined with outrage about those facts that ultimately secured the widespread acknowledgement of the report’s legitimacy and its subsequent influence.

If the Care Review is not outraged by what it finds in its scrutiny of Children’s Social Care, then it is not looking in the right places. If outraged, its legitimacy will lie in the degree to which it can synthesise facts and values to make even the most reluctant audience understand what is happening in the sector, why it is happening, and recognise that things must urgently change.

Jo Warner, April 2021

[1] Drawing on Beetham, D. (2013; 1991) The Legitimation of Power. Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan (2nd ed.)

[2] Macpherson, Lord, (1999), The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Cm.4262-I.

[3] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report – March 2021 (

[4] William Macpherson: an establishment man with a sense of outrage | UK criminal justice | The Guardian

Joe Hanley Special Edition

Network Ethnography and the Care Review


Since his appointment as chair of the Children’s Social Care Review, serious concerns have been raised about the independence of Josh MacAlister due, in part, to his role as founder and CEO of the fast-track social work training organisation Frontline that has received millions of pounds in government funding over the past eight years. In response, MacAlister claimed that he is no less independent than anyone who has secured government funding, including those working in local authorities and academia. However, in the context of growing concerns about political bias in public appointments, and the widespread corruption seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth exploring whether the picture is indeed as simple as MacAlister suggests. This article applies the research methodology of network ethnography to explore MacAlister’s interdependence within contemporary policy networks in England, in particular drawing on the work of educational researcher Stephen Ball.

Network Ethnography

Network ethnography is an assemblage of research techniques that seek to map, visit and question the networks involved in policy development (Ball, 2016). In doing so, Ball (2017) suggests that a researcher can follow policy and develop a picture of actually existing neoliberalism, plotting the connections and the relationships through which policy travels. This includes examining both current and previous connections, acknowledging that stepping down from an organisation does not necessarily mean that a person’s network becomes detached from that organisation, or those they worked with there. Therefore, network ethnography is a decidedly qualitative exercise, seeking to identify substance and meaning through the subtle, and often hidden, ways that networks feed into policy development (Ball and Exley, 2010). The visualisation of these connections also acts as a medium for following these connections, and supports those unfamiliar with the context to quickly grasp the scale of the interconnectivity.

Ball has applied network ethnography extensively to educational policy networks, including in relation to philanthropy (Ball and Junemann, 2011), policy mobility (Ball, 2016), think tanks (Ball and Exley, 2010) and privatisation (Ball, 2009) and his network maps frequently span multiple pages. However, in applying network ethnography to social work in England I have limited the mapping to a single page in order to make it more accessible. I have also only included individuals and organisations that are within three degrees of separation (three connections away) from Josh MacAlister or Frontline to avoid the network analysis drifting too far from the focus on the care review. Only significant connections were included, for example working directly for an organisation, or being a member of an organisation’s board. Key organisational partnerships were also included, as in the case of Ark providing seed funding and incubation for Frontline. Despite these restrictions, the level of complexity and interconnectivity within the network was still substantial.

It is important to acknowledge that there has been previous work to map the connections between key actors in this area that I drew upon. Below are two examples, the first is taken from Ray Jones’ (2019) book In Whose Interest? and the second was produced anonymously and has been shared widely on social media.

From Jones, R. (2019) In Whose Interest?
Shared anonymously via social media

While the second of these graphs includes personal connections alongside business and professional connections, and Ball frequently includes personal connections in his work as well, I elected to exclude these. This decision was taken because personal relationships are more difficult to identify and prove, while also being more open to interpretation and concealment. While I tried to capture as many significant connections as possible, I stopped the mapping when my judgement was that the diagram was becoming too convoluted to be useful. The complex picture does demonstrate the level of interconnectivity that this relatively small group of actors has with each other, and why MacAlister saying that he has now stepped down from his role in Frontline, Shift and other various boards may not be sufficient to ensure his independence. Below is the care review network map that emerged:

The network map

The map can also be viewed here, from where the document can be downloaded in order to access the functional links.

Missing Links

Despite this convoluted picture, there were many connections, organisations, and individuals that were left out, and in many ways this mapping only scratches the surface of the network. For example, while a large number of financial firms are included in the map, this does not fully capture the level of involvement of private financial capital within the network. For an indication of just how extensive these connections are, check out the partners/supporters pages of Teach First or The Difference or even the list of Frontline partners/supporters that was deleted from Frontline’s website around the time of MacAlister’s appointment to lead the care review, but can still be accessed as it looked in September 2020 here. Furthermore, the focus was on showing connections to the Department for Education, because it was this department that launched the review and appointed MacAlister. However, there are also many connections with other government departments as well. For example, Camilla Cavendish is currently working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on adult social care reform. There were additional political connections that were difficult to plot. For example, Purcell (2020) highlights that many of the ideas behind Frontline were discussed in private meetings between then Minister for Education Michael Gove and Martin Narey in the early 2010s. MacAlister himself describes how he called in sick to his new teaching job in order to attend a meeting with Gove and Andrew Adonis to plan Frontline. The reality is that adding Gove to this map could have exponentially expanded the complexity for these and other reasons. Narey, too, has a number of additional connections that are worth exploring, some of which have been outlined in this blog. There are a number of connections to major media outlets that have also been excluded too. For instance, Adonis has previously worked for both the Financial Times and the Observer newspapers. As a final point, it is important to acknowledge that the focus here is decidedly on children’s services, because this is the focus of the care review. This does not mean that these networks are non-existent in adult services, and a very different but heavily overlapping picture would likely have developed if the mental health fast-track training organisation Think Ahead, and its leaders and board, were taken as the starting point.

Analysis of the Network

As in the case of Ball’s research, some actors in this network are more connected than others; however, it is the collective nature of this web of influence that creates much of its policy making power, and all included are to some degree insiders compared to those outside of the policy loop (Ball and Exley, 2010). Therefore, it is worth outlining some observations about the individuals and organisations identified. The individuals are mostly male (74%), which is particularly problematic considering the degree of control they are exercising over the predominantly female profession of social work (85% of children’s social workers are female). There are few registered social workers, and a large number alumni from Teach First, the fast-track teacher training provider that Frontline was based on (including MacAlister). There are also a large number of individuals who have received royal honours. When it comes to the organisations involved, it is notably that the six largest consulting firms in the world are all represented. Many of these organisations have been implicated in financial, political and humanitarian scandals. For example, in early 2021 McKinsey agreed to pay a settlement of $600 million for its role in perpetuating opioid addiction in the USA, Credit Suisse are currently embroiled in a corporate espionage scandal, Deloitte have recently paid $80 million to settle claims related to their role in corruption in Malaysia, EY have been revealed to have purposefully covered up evidence of organised crime in the UK, in 2019 KPMG were required to pay a $50 million fine for using stolen information to cheat on audits, and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and McKinsey are both currently helping to develop a new ‘megacity’ in Saudi Arabia which, it is alleged, has resulted in the displacement of the Huwaitat populations there. In fact, just googling any of the financial firms represented in the network, alongside the word “scandal”, provides ample examples of why we should be worried about their increasing role in children’s social care. Several of the organisations included have also been involved in public and private partnerships seeking to expand the controversial use of predictive analytics in children’s social care, including SCIE, EY and Nesta. It is additionally noteworthy that many of the actors identified here are also identified in Ball’s education policy network maps, such as Ark, Amanda Spielman, Nesta, Teach First, KPMG, Adonis, BCG, Credit Suisse and Deloitte, suggesting a significant overlap between education and children’s social care policy networks that warrants further exploration.

Ball (2016) highlights how a small group of networked policy actors like those outlined here come to know each other quite well, sharing ideas, making commitments and developing trust through attending the same social events, award ceremonies, dinners, and, as in the case of the recent founding of the Oak Academy, being in the same WhatsApp groups. Through this process, ideas gain momentum and support, and are shared across the network through repetition, quotation, cross-referencing and co-authoring (Ball and Exley, 2010). Network actors frequently hold multiple roles, change roles often and move across private and public sectors. Those involved can act as trustees for each other’s organisations, sit on each other’s boards, promote each other over social media, and write and speak at each other’s events. The care review is not even the first time that someone from within this network has been tasked with undertaking an “independent” review of another actor in the network. For example, CASCADE have undertaken several independent evaluations of Frontline, and Martin Narey has been tasked multiple times with undertaking independent reviews on behalf of the Department for Education, including in relation to social work education and residential children’s social care.

The interests of those involved therefore become heavily intertwined with each other, as well as being intertwined with the government. The grouping of the Department for Education as a single actor in the network map loses some of the nuance related to how influence is wielded in that department by many of the actors involved. For example, both Alan Wood and Isabelle Trowler have sat on the board of the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, a government funded initiative based on research carried out by McKinsey and implemented in part by Deloitte, that has awarded millions of pounds of public money to many organisations identified in the network map, including the London Borough of Hackney, Achieving for Children, Pause, Frontline, TACT, Coram and Morning Lane. Wood and Trowler both also acted as advisory panel members, alongside Julian LeGrand, for the LaingBuisson Report that recommended a number mechanisms for outsourcing children’s social care in ways that would benefit many of the organisations and individuals in the network. Trowler has been a vocal supporter of the controversial National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) that as of March 2020 had cost £24 million, with contracts so far awarded to, among others, Morning Lane, Deloitte and KPMG. A freedom of information request also suggests that MacAlister had a role in the development of the NAAS, as he received (and accepted) a direct invitation from then Minister for Children Edward Timpson in 2015 to be involved in the development of “social work assessment methods” alongside Trowler, Morning Lane and others. Timpson would later serve on the Children’s Commissioner advisory panel alongside MacAlister. Government reports that Trowler is involved in frequently make suggestions that will benefit organisations and actors in the network, including a recent government study that recommended specific funding be provided to WWCSC, an organisations she continues to sit on the board of, and another report that suggested that all social workers involved in private law children’s proceedings should be “nationally accredited child and family practitioners” (presumably by the NAAS). As one final point of note, a freedom of information request has revealed that Narey was on the interview panel for Trowler when she was appointed Chief Social Worker.

Analysis of the Network and the Care Review

In the short time since it was announced in January 2021 the influence and involvement of this network have been on stark display in relation to the care review. This is obviously most notably through the appointment of MacAlister as chair. Some of the concerns related to MacAlister include that he was the lead author of a proposed Blueprint for Children’s Social Care that was published in November 2019 and outlines a model of reform for children’s social care. This document strongly suggests that he may have preconceived notions about what reform in this area should look like. Joining MacAlister among the nine authors of the Blueprint are several additional actors represented in the network map, including three employees of BCG and three employees of the Centre for Public Impact. Examining the Blueprint through the lens of this network map also provides a window into understanding how consensus was built and support garnered for the model in ways that are not outlined explicitly in the Blueprint. For example, Isabelle Trowler revealed in a 2016 interview with Donald Forrester that she had visited the Netherlands to learn about Buurtzorg. Furthermore, both Stephen Rice and David Wilkins advocated in 2017 journal articles for the potential of Buurtzorg in children’s social care in England. This suggests that instead of being a Frontline, MacAlister or even BCG Blueprint as I and colleagues have suggested elsewhere, this may more accurately be characterised as a network developed Blueprint, with MacAlister acting as the frontman.

The early stages of the care review also suggest this network will be highly influential in the process. Many of those in the network have made public statements in support of the review and MacAlister’s appointment. The first two people identified as playing a role in the care review alongside MacAlister were Jenny Molloy, who has taught at Frontline’s summer institute, and Shazia Hussein, who has previously collaborated with Narey on his 2016 review of children’s residential care. MacAlister’s unredacted contract also shows that he is explicitly required to work with two organisations: Social Finance and WWCSC. Both these organisations have close ties to MacAlister and others in the network, in particular WWCSC. Coram were recently announced to be playing a supporting role in the care review, and ministerial meeting information has revealed that Minister for Children Vicky Ford held a preliminary meeting with the president of Coram David Bell all the way back in August 2020. One of MacAlister’s first actions upon being appointed was to request that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigate the social care market. Incidentally, Jeremy Newman, a panel member at the CMA, is also a board member of Frontline. MacAlister is now working closely with Rachel De Souza who has launched her own review of childhood in collaboration with the Oak Academy. A freedom of information request has shown that many of the organisations in the network map were among those invited to the private launch of the care review, including Coram, Reach and WWCSC. Only two universities received this invitation, Cardiff University, employer of Donald Forrester and David Wilkins, and host of CASCADE, and Kent University, where David Shemmings is Emeritus Professor. Two advisory groups have also been announced to support the care review. Several individuals in the network map are represented on these panels, including Trowler, Forrester, Feinstein and Broadhurst, as well as individuals with direct connections to Shift, IPPR, Frontline, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Coram, Social Finance, WWCSC, Oak Academy and the implementation of the NAAS.

Concluding Comments

A critique related to this type of network mapping is that if you go looking for a network you will find one (Christopoulos, 2008). Indeed, the obvious way to dismiss this type of analysis is to refer to it as conspiracy thinking. However recent experiences of government and business corruption suggest that if anything the influence of these types of networks is underappreciated and the advantages gained from both formal and informal connections are increasingly being hidden, with the public having to rely on exposure through Freedom of Information requests, whistle-blowers, legal challenges, investigative journalism and even clerical errors. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that the decision about which connections and actors to include and exclude was ultimately a subjective exercise based on my own reading of the landscape. In order to promote transparency, the source of each connection is linked in the network map word document, so I would encourage anyone reading this to make up their own mind about the significance of these relationships (notably though the linked connection may be one of several connections between two actors). In addition, these network links are particularly significant at the moment because of the claims from both MacAlister and the Department for Education (and many others in the network) that the care review is independent. This analysis has shown that far from being independent, the care review is actually interdependent within this policy network. I hope that the mapping can act as a tool for others to build on, reflect on and provides context to the ongoing care review, including in relation to future appointments, involvement, public comments and those who benefit from its conclusions.

Note about the Network Map Word Document

The document needs to be downloaded to be able to access the links. If you zoom in it is easier to click on the individual connections. If you are struggling to trace a connection, clicking on a connecting arrow highlights it and you should be able to find the other end which will also be highlighted. You will need to either right click the connecting arrows and then click on “open hyperlink”, or hold Ctrl and click on the connecting arrow, in order to open the embedded links. If there is anyone more tech savvy than me and is interested in translating this network map into a more user friendly version, or a web version that can be more accessible, interactive and expandable (and maybe easier on the eyes), please do get in touch on

Joe Hanley, The Open University


Ball, S. (2009) ‘Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99.

Ball, S. (2016) ‘Following policy: networks, network ethnography and education policy mobilities’, Journal of Education Policy, 31:5, 549-566.

Ball, S. (2017) ‘Laboring to Relate: Neoliberalism, Embodied Policy, and Network Dynamics’, Peabody Journal of Education, 92:1, 29-41,

Ball, S. and Exley, S. (2010) ‘Making policy with ‘good ideas’: policy networks and the ‘intellectuals’ of New Labour’, Journal of Education Policy, 25:2, 151-169.

Ball, S. and Junermann, C. (2011) ‘Education policy and philanthropy: the changing landscape of English educational governance’, International Journal of Public Administration,34(10), 646-661.

Christopoulos, D. (2008) ‘The governance of networks: Heuristic or formal analysis? A reply to Rachel Parker’, Political Studies,56, 475–81.

Jones, R. (2019) In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Child Protection and Social Work,Bristol: Policy Press.

Purcell, C. (2020) The Politics of Children’s Services Reform: Re-examining two Decades of Policy Change,Bristol: Policy Press.

John Radoux Special Edition

Reviews, independence and lies

Anger sometimes has a bad rap, which is odd, because it is one of a range of human emotions all of us experience (at least, we all should).  As a therapist, I might sometimes wonder where a child’s anger is.  In fact, I will often consider it an important moment when a child finally expresses, or demonstrates, anger about something – or even directs his or her anger at me.  While uncontrolled, violent or abusive anger is obviously harmful to the individual concerned and the recipient, anger itself is often healthy and sometimes necessary. Nevertheless, some people find anger and the behaviours it can be a driver for – assertiveness, the stating of awkward truths, an unwillingness to backdown, sarcasm, I could go on – uncomfortable.  If that is you, then this is your opportunity to stop reading.  As someone wise said to me recently, there is a place for people who: “rightly shout ‘the game is rigged’ from the terraces”.

In respect of the claimed independence of the English review of children’s social care announced back in January, we have moved from what some of us thought were suspicious patterns in play from the start, to finding the metaphorical equivalent of a holdall stuffed with used fifties and six burner phones in the referee’s office – the proverbial smoking gun. Any reasonable reading of Josh MacAlister’s contract – which became public knowledge a few days before I wrote this piece – demonstrates beyond doubt that the review is not, as it has been heavily promoted, “independent”.  Further, it shows that there is no route via this review to the kinds of systemic changes that would make a meaningful difference to the lives of children in care.  The roads have been blocked by MacAlister’s contractual obligations: any recommendations made by the review must be cost neutral (I am not going to bother explaining why this is absurd) and MacAlister must not “embarrass” the Department for Education, are among many.

As a side note, the Department for Education is an abstract construct and cannot be embarrassed.  Obviously, they mean people who work at the DfE should not be embarrassed.  Ministers? Presumably.  The Chief Social Worker for Children and Families? I guess.  I wonder what it is they fear could embarrass them?  It is amusing to learn the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, is so worried about being made a fool of in public (far too late old boy!).  Anyway, the details of MacAlister’s contract were clearly thought to be embarrassing too, which is why much of what I have referred to here was redacted from the version posted on their own website.

By proclaiming its independence from the DfE and government, the review started with a lie.  Some, including myself, were, from the day it was announced, very concerned that MacAlister was not sufficiently independent of the DfE given his close connections with senior players there.  Our concerns were not abated when, after persistent questions on social media and in parliament, it was revealed that his review team would be made up almost entirely of civil servants – “as is typical for reviews like this”, in MacAlister’s own words on Twitter.  Interesting, given this review has not been sold as “typical”, has it?  Still, I guess I just figured MacAlister was a placeman and that he would ultimately, with one eye on his future career, not piss the Government off.  It never occurred to me that the review’s ability to think freely, to reimagine the care system based on the evidence and ideas it receives, had been proscribed by the (legally enforceable) terms of MacAlister’s employment.

One of the many reasons this lie matters, is that over 1000 people applied to be members of the Experts by Experience board.  Presumably, most of them did so on the basis that they believed this was a genuine opportunity to influence the future of the care system.  To influence it in a way that decreased the chances of other children and families having experiences similar to those that they had. We now know this opportunity does not exist.

Further, MacAlister chose not to say, prior to the recruitment process, how many vacancies there were for the board, how many people would be shortlisted for interview and what the criteria to be shortlisted were.  It is now very clear that lived experience was not enough, and previous experience of being a lived experience “voice” and advocate were also required (the problems regarding a kind of lived experience closed shop would be worth exploring separately).  Had MacAlister been clear regarding the very tight constraints placed on the review by the DfE, clear about the number of places on the board, and clear about the requirement for a track record of similar activity, it is reasonable to assume many fewer people would have applied, and those that did would have done so from an informed position. 

It is also worth noting, and wondering why, the EbE board is a separate entity to the actual review team.  Questions regarding whether the board will have direct involvement in producing and/or signing off the review’s final reports and recommendations remain unanswered.  I am going to state here that it definitely will not (I look forward to being corrected if I am wrong). No shared power, no co-creation.  For these reasons, accusations of tokenism are both inevitable and accurate.  

Why MacAlister and his team chose to mislead those with experience of the care system cannot be said with certainty.  But it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that one of the reasons is so they could boast about the number of EbE applicants – providing the review with a superficial credibility.  As for hundreds of care experienced people (who never stood a chance of being selected) being rejected one afternoon via email, and the distress this would cause, well, if this was considered at all, I guess it was just seen as collateral damage.  Almost everyone who has spent time in care will have experienced multiple rejections, and felt unheard and ignored. For the care review to mirror these – potentially traumatising – experiences is, at best, staggeringly insensitive and, at worst, callous.  Even the phrase “collateral damage” implies a price worth paying for a greater good.  It is not clear to me what the greater good is here.

I am conscious that there appear to be attempts to spin any criticism of the make-up of the EbE board, and the review more generally, as criticism of individual members of the board.  It is not.  That does not mean the activities of the EbE board or, if appropriate, individual members of the EbE board cannot be criticised.  Lived experience does not give someone a free pass.  For example, you are more than entitled to disagree with the content of this article and you are entitled to express that disagreement. But for the most part, critique is rightly directed at the DfE, MacAlister and his team.  Many members of the EbE board are, I am certain, being exploited.

Its is fair to say I nearly did not write this piece.  I agreed to because of a mix of loyalty and friendship with members of the editorial collective, my difficulty in saying no, my vanity, and my desire, need really, to be heard. But each time I tried to start writing I felt stuck, it seemed so pointless – futile – to rehearse the arguments others, and I, have made many times before.  I could not work out what I wanted to say, or what the point of saying it would be. 

I am still not sure to be honest, but, while it is tempting, I am going to leave further criticism of the review’s structures and processes (the ridiculous timescales, MacAlister’s blueprint, concerns regarding its possible use as a cover for deregulation etc etc) to others and concentrate on the thing that worries me most.

Much of the focus of the review and, at least in terms of the parts I am aware of, academic social work, seems to be centred on how to prevent children from coming into care in the first place.  An entirely laudable and necessary aim.  Obviously, I agree that there should be many less children in care and I agree with many of the remedies argued for – tackling poverty, greater investment in universal services, better support for families that are struggling and so on.  Of course, all these things would lead to a reduction in the numbers of children in care (although some may take a generation or two to have an impact).

But here is the thing, even if we could wave a magic wand, enact all these wonderful ideas, dramatically improve the quality of children and families social work, and, let’s say, half the number of children in care, there would still be many thousands of children in the care of the state and necessarily so.  It is naïve and sentimental to imagine otherwise. For example, I am certain I would not be alive to write this piece now if I had not been removed.  I have looked after many children whose expressed wish was to remain in care, those who were angry they were not removed sooner and many more where it would have simply been too dangerous for them to return to their families. This might be uncomfortable to accept, but accept it we must.  

It is these children and young people who I think about the most, because at the moment what happens to many of them when they come into care, and when they leave care, is simply unacceptable.  Much of the reason for this is systemic, but, let us not avoid uncomfortable truths, some of the reasons are due to the lack of understanding, compassion and empathy of some managers, social workers, foster carers, residential staff and other professionals. 

How is the review going to address this? How is it going to help these children and young people?  Is it even going to think about them? It isn’t is it?  The chaos and trauma of their lives will continue unabated and, worse, in two- or three-years’ time, when people like me are continuing to say: “this is appalling, something has to change”, MacAlister will have moved on to his next well remunerated position and we will be told: “You have had the review you asked for”.  But, of course, we won’t have.

John Radoux is a child & adolescent psychotherapeutic counsellor and residential child care worker, he grew up in care and tweets @JohnRadoux.

Julia James, Matthew Davies, Arzu Bokhari, Catherine Davies and Hannah Osborn Special Edition

The MASW bursary campaign 2020: An example of grassroots social work activism

MASW Bursary Campaign Members

The concerns raised about the care review in England, such as those made last month by BASW, underscore the importance of the profession coming together to ensure grassroots voices can be heard. The pandemic has come on the back of successive years of decreasing budgets coinciding with increasing demand. Social care provision is just one of many areas in our lives that stands at the crossroads of change in a post-covid world and economy.  Some will view this as a great opportunity, while others foresee difficult decisions to ensure sustainability. Regardless of one’s perspective, it is crucial that those with specialist experience and knowledge are included in the decision-making process.

One example of how social work activism can garner momentum to promote positive political and policy change is our campaign across the border in Wales. Health and Social Care is a devolved matter in Wales, which is how legislation and policy can differ from that of England. Northern Ireland and Scotland, like Wales, also have their own legislative bodies.

Politically, Wales is a left of centre nation, having never elected a Conservative majority to its Senedd (Parliament).  The Welsh are well reputed for their compassion, community and equality, and such sentiments can be traced back hundreds of years. For example, prior unification with England in the 16th century, Welsh law demanded inheritance to be bestowed equally amongst all children, rather than the eldest son inheriting in full. It was a Welsh politician, Aneurin Bevan, who led the way in establishing the National Health Service free at the point of need in the UK in the immediate post-war period. The South Wales Valleys and its strong trade union labour movements gave Kier Hardie MP the platform to found the Labour Party in the early 20th century.  During the miners’ strike of 1984-85 the South Wales Valleys carried the highest levels of participation (99.6%), with the Maerdy Colliery in the Rhondda Valley holding out until the last. Such determination could only be sustained with an inherent community spirit and the support of strong women who founded support groups to distribute food and join picket lines. Is it a surprise that we have elected a former Social Work Lecturer as our First Minister?

Nevertheless, Wales faces increasing challenges due to an ageing population, significant levels of poverty, overstretched services and decreasing budgets. Some may argue that the priority of protecting the health service in Wales has made social care a “poor cousin”. The result has been an ever-increasing gap in esteem between NHS and Social Care in Wales.

This is the backdrop to our campaign; as social worker students, we are as grassroots as it gets!

Commencing our Social Work master’s degree in September 2020 was a difficult time. Dubbed the ‘Covid Cohort’ by the university and restricted to remote working, we took steps to build ‘virtual’ support networks. As student representatives, we sent out a survey to our fellow students to determine their well-being, and to see what could be done to support each other during such a challenging time. We found that the most significant challenge facing our cohort was financial. We learned that many social work students were living in poverty, with no access to support.

The Social Care Wales bursary fails to cover tuition fees, let alone contribute to living costs. Our cohort was struggling to balance employment we had to take on top of full-time study, in addition to placements with the Local Authority.  Current legislation prohibits MA students from taking out a student loan and receive a bursary simultaneously, and the loan itself is not fit for purpose.

At the same time, our NHS student colleagues, such as podiatrists, dieticians, nurses, doctors, midwives, speech and language therapists,  dentists, and occupational therapists, are supported with a living costs bursary and have their tuition fees paid in full.

Acknowledging this disparity, we created a plan of action to address the funding inequality for Master’s students. We first documented our concerns that the current rules and funding provisions were placing unnecessary hardship and stresses onto the future workforce, with a system that acts as a barrier to entering a sector already suffering from a lack of diversity. We also outlined how the sector is facing a recruitment crisis, with substantial vacancies and an ageing workforce. The last thing the social care sector in Wales needs is to place further barriers and unnecessary hardships on the next generation of social workers. We forwarded these concerns in the form of a letter to both Social Care Wales and BASW Cymru, and subsequently, our campaign was born.

We contacted our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Senedd (MSs) to push our campaign into the political sphere. We asked students in Swansea and Bangor University to do the same. We urged the Welsh Government to commit to addressing the inequalities and lack of parity of esteem that postgraduate social work students face. We have received support and encouragement from BASW Cymru, who share our goals as a manifesto pledge, and reached out to colleagues to table the matter for discussion in the Senedd (the Welsh Parliament) in December 2020. In February, we met with the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Care, Julie Morgan MS, and the Deputy Director-General of Welsh Government, Albert Heaney, which was productive. In March, we were invited to a social care hustings by Allison Hulmes, of BASW Cymru, to raise awareness of the issue to a panel of Senedd Members, all of whom agreed that the matter needs addressing.

In collaboration with BASW Cymru, we are looking to continue our campaign. We are in the process of developing an online platform to help raise awareness of the disparity faced by postgraduate social work students. You can follow us on our Twitter account @MASWBC2020 to see how ‘The MASW Bursary Campaign 2020’ progresses. If you feel you can help or want to show your support, please contact us via our Twitter page; we would love to hear from you!

We would like to thank our course director Abyd Quinn Aziz and the wider faculty at Cardiff University, whose support and encouragement has been critical to getting us to this stage.

Julia James, Matthew Davies, Arzu Bokhari, Catherine Davies and Hannah Osborn

Cardiff University Social Work MA ‘Covid Cohort’

June Thoburn Special Edition

Routes to permanence for children who need out-of-home care: An evidence overview*

*This is a much shortened version of a submission to the Care Review – available on APSW website ( Most references are omitted as are the detailed pointers to improvement. 

Alternative ‘routes to permanence’- overview of legislation, policy and practice

‘Permanence’ is frequently used as a summary term for a complex set of aims and experiences. It, and terms such as ‘family for life’, are ‘shorthand’ terms for a child’s need for stability, continuity, family membership, being loved and loving. It is often placed alongside a child’s and adult’s need for a sense of personal and cultural identity. Over the past 40 years the emphasis on the different ‘routes to permanence’ has shifted from returning children safely to their families, seeking to ensuring stability for children who remain in long term foster care, and securing exits from care to ‘legal permanence’ in adoptive and kinship families.

International and national research has identified the key variables to be considered when deciding which ‘route to permanence’ might be most likely to ‘work’ in different circumstances. Age at entering care and at placement with a substitute family is a ‘proxy’ variable for weighing the likelihood of the placement lasting into adulthood and beyond. However, some young people moving into a foster family in their teens put down roots that remain for them in adulthood. Recognition of this contextual knowledge is firmly embedded in the 2015 DfE guidance[1]. The two preferred ‘permanence’ options are:

  • Leaving care by safe return to parent/s able to meet the child’s safety and long-term wellbeing needs;
  • And, leaving care to live on a secure legal basis with kin.

In accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989[2], these must first be considered and services provided to support the likelihood that they will meet the child’s stability, identity and protection needs throughout childhood. If neither are viable options, the appropriate long term placement for each child will be chosen from: remaining in secure long-term foster care, leaving care via adoption or – since the early 2000s – special guardianship; and in some circumstances (and almost always for older entrants to care or those for whom a planned ‘permanence’ option has disrupted) a planned stable placement in a children’s home.

An overview of the current knowledge base on alternative permanence options

There have been many research studies over this period. Still highly relevant to the present knowledge base are the DH Messages from Research overviews disseminating research findings from across placement options[3]. These, and the research-based Principles and Practice in Regulations and Guidance[4] should be the starting point for the evidence evaluation stream of a review that is considering fundamental change that may impact on placement choices for children in care.

The over-arching messages are: 

  • If children are assessed as needing long term care away from their parent/s, it is likely that they will have experienced inter-uterine or post-birth trauma, neglect or other harms. Additionally, all will have experienced the trauma of at least some separation and loss from adults (parents, relatives and/or foster carers) to whom they have become close. Separation can be traumatic even if attachments have been problematic.
  • Children who need out-of-home care at any age are likely to have some additional needs for support. At least episodically at times of stress, they and those who become their ‘permanent’ family will need supportive, practical and sometimes intensive therapeutic services, as they grow up and move into adulthood, and for some, as they parent their own children.  Parenting these children, presents special challenges. All members of the ‘kinship network’ (including birth and new family members) are likely to need skilled and empathic assistance in the early stages of the placement and then periodically at key development stages and times of stress.
  • Whilst all young people should remain part of their family beyond 18, young adults who have been in care because of maltreatment or neglect are likely to continue to need to call on aspects of ‘parenting’ (often to an extent beyond what would be the case for an ‘average’ young adult).
  • The 1989 Children Act provided a sound basis for meeting the welfare, participation, protection and identity needs of children in need of additional services, including needing to be placed in ‘out-of-home’ care.
  • Measures to reduce unnecessary changes have improved the stability for those placed as toddlers and in their middle years. Most infant entrants who cannot return safely to parents are adopted or placed with kin and services for them have improved (see below). Placement instability remains a serious problem for a small but worrying group of older entrants to care, or those whose permanent placements (in foster or adoptive families) disrupt in adolescence. This problem is exacerbated by the fragmentation of placement services that has become more marked in recent years.
  • Despite the challenges, most children who need to enter care do as well or better than similar children who do not enter care. Some do very well, and some do very badly. Depending on their age when entering care, many will need longer than the average child, to move into successful adult life[5].
  •  Short term care or episodic care in the same placement, as part of a relationship-based family support service (as envisaged by S.20 of the Children Act 1989) can make it possible for some children to remain in in kinship care or return to parents  in a planned way. 

Alternative routes to permanence: how well do they do and what must be done do make them better?

Return home from care: the first permanence option   

 Leaving aside those who come into care for a planned or emergency short period or (often involving children or a parent with a disability), have a series of placements or a long term ‘shared care’ placement in the same setting, the conclusion from research using a range of methods in different countries is that return home from care is the least ‘successful’ ‘permanence’ option[6]

The main reason why necessary improvements identified by researchers (all possible under current legislation) have not happened is the failure of policy-makers to take on board the point made above: these are likely to have additional needs resulting from the experience of trauma, separation and loss, are likely to present challenges to their parents, and likely to need high quality services over long periods of time.  This has been understood with respect to adopters and kinship carers, but the evidence shows that parents and children ‘reunified’ from care receive at best a short term, possibly ‘intensive’ service.[7] 

Leaving care via a Special Guardianship Order

With respect to kinship care, there is a growing body of research indicating that, despite kinship guardians being on average older, and living in poorer economic circumstances, the actual placement break-down rate is low. Qualitative research reporting on the views of carers, and young people finds generally high levels of satisfaction[8].  Some of the points made above with respect to return to birth parents are relevant to service needs of kinship carers and their families. As with returning to a parent, for some kinship families a longer-term relationship-based flexible service may be needed, though most often on an ‘episodic’ basis. Assistance with family contact arrangements is often needed and sometimes on a long-term basis. As for children in long term foster and adoptive families, if a child in a kinship family needs to enter care, support to the family which avoids blaming can succeed in maintaining a sense of family belonging. 

Leaving Care via an adoption order

A large volume of research reports on adoptions from care and alternative long-term placements.[9]  These report a very low rate of adoption breakdown/ disruption (before or after the adoption order) varying between less than 5% and around 20% depending on the age and characteristics of the children in the study. In England, the ages of children placed from care for adoption have decreased and most are now placed when under aged 2 and very few when over 3.  Although actual placement breakdown is low, studies report considerable distress for somewhere between a third and a half of the families, especially during teenage years.

Recognition of these issues has resulted in the development of policies and practice to assist and support adoptive families, not just at the time of placement, but also, at the request of the adopters and older children when stresses are experienced. Of particular importance is getting the appropriate balance at the recruitment stage between information about the rewards and the possible challenges of adoptive family life. Love and the wish to help a child are essential, but not enough.

Planned long term foster family care

Most studies report that children placed when young with a foster family intended to be their ‘family for life’ are likely to remain there till adulthood and beyond and to have good wellbeing. However, in England, very few children under the age of 3 are placed in a planned long-term foster family. Since most adoptees reported on in longitudinal studies have joined their new families as infants, but very few join their long-term foster families when under five, valid outcome comparisons between adoption and long term foster care cannot be made[10].  This is important since at any one date between 35% and 40%   of children in care are in planned long term foster families[11].  Children in stable foster family care have the advantage over most adopted children that most are enabled to retain appropriate and meaningful links with their adult birth relatives and siblings. Too few LAs recognise the need to recruit foster parents who are willing and able to welcome a child as a full member of their family for as long as needed and probably into adult life, whilst also understanding the special needs of a child in care and the importance of being members of ‘the team around the child’.

Residential care as a permanence option for older young people

There is a widely held view and policy for many years that sees placement in a children’s home, for anything but a brief emergency or assessment purpose, as a ‘last resort’. Consequently, most of the small number who are placed in a children’s home with the intention that they will put down roots and make relationships with skilled and committed members of staff (who will be there for them to age 18 and beyond) will have had multiple foster care placements or experienced the breakdown of a planned adoptive or long term foster family placement or unsuccessful return to the family. Research supports the conclusion that some young people prefer to be looked after in a children’s home, where they can remain till they are ready to leave around the age of 18 and with which they can retain a ‘sense of belonging’[12]. Maintaining relationships with staff they are close to and also other residents can make all the difference as they move into adult life.

Concluding Comment

It is important to note that children and young people enter public out-of-home care in all countries and parts of countries.  Numbers vary depending on policies and contexts, and especially on levels of poverty and material deprivation[13] and on the aims for the care system[14]. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ number/ rate in care- the aim should be to provide high quality, loving parenting for those who need it and to support within the community those whose needs for love, care and protection can be met within the family home. Whilst public policy should aim to keep numbers needing out-of-home care as low as possible, every effort should be made to provide a very high quality of care to meet the varying needs of all children in care and care leavers and combat, for the young people themselves, and for the public at large, any sense that ‘care is a bad place to be’.

Prof. June Thoburn,

Emeritus Professor of Social Work

University of East Anglia


[1] Department for Education 2015 Permanence, long-term foster placements and ceasing to look after a child: Statutory guidance for local authorities.London: DfE.

[2] See most recently the report of Family Rights Group 2017. Holding the risk: The balance between child protection and the right to family life. Which combines the voices of care experienced people and research.

[3]  DH (2001) The Children Act Now: Messages from research. London: TSO followed by research DH/DCSF-commissioned overviews on foster care, residential care. adoption, placements of teenagers, the last one being: Thomas, C. (2013) Adoption for looked after children: messages from research An overview of the Adoption Research Initiative. London: BAAF  

[4] DH (1990) Principles and Practice in Regulations and Guidance. London: HMSO.

 See also Thoburn, J. Child Placement: Principles and Practice (1994) Ashgate

[5] See especially,  Stein M (2019) Supporting young people from care to adulthood: international practice, Child and Family Social Work, 24; 400-405  and see Prof Stein’s submission to this Review

[6] See Thoburn, J., Robinson, J. and Anderson, B. (2012) Returning Children from Public Care. London: Social Care Institute for Excellence Research Briefing 42.
 Farmer, E. (2018) Reunification from Out-of-home care: A research overview of good practice: University of Bristol 

[7] See Farmer, E. and Patsios, D. 2016. Evaluation Report on Implementing the Reunification Practice Framework.Bristol: University of Bristol 

[8] Farmer, E. (2010) What factors relate to good placement outcomes in kinship care? British Journal of Social Work. 40 (2)

[9] Neil, E., Beek, M., Ward, E. (2014) Contact after Adoption: A longitudinal study of adopted young people and their adoptive parents and birth relatives. London: BAAF.

[10] Biehal, N. (2014) A Sense of Belonging: Meanings of Family and Home in Long-Term Foster Care British Journal of Social Work, 44, (4) 971

[11]Schofield, G., & Beek, M (2009). Growing up in foster care: providing a secure base through adolescence. Child and Family Social Work, 7(1),3  See overview submitted to this Review by Professor Gillian Schofield ‘Long-term foster care as a permanence option’

[12] Stein, M. and Munro, E. (2008) Young People’s Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice, London, Jessica Kingsley Report of the Care Experienced Conference, Past Present and Future April 2019

Our Care our Say

Every Child Leaving Care Matters (2917) Caring Teams: Staying Close

[13] Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Daniel, B., Featherstone, B., Jones, C., Morris, K., Scourfield, J., Sparks, T., & Webb, C. (2018). Inequalities in English child protection practice under austerity: A universal challenge? Child & Family Social Work, 23(1), 53-61

[14] Thoburn, J. 2010.  Achieving safety, stability and belonging for children in out-of-home care.  The search for ‘what works’ across national boundaries. International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, 12(1-2): 34-48

Kate Parkinson Special Edition

Family Group Conferences: the basis for an alternative child protection system?

Family Group Conferences: the basis for an alternative child protection system?

Whilst the government’s proposed review of the child protection system is fundamentally flawed and falls short in so many ways, one thing is clear: the child protection system in the UK needs to change. It is widely acknowledged to be an oppressive, bureaucratic and risk averse system (Rogers and Parkinson, 2018).

It is also a system which privileges the expertise of professionals over the lived experience of children and families.

Family Group Conferences (FGCs) offer a viable alternative to existing child protection decision making processes, which can address the shortfalls highlighted above.  As FGCs are one of the most widely researched areas of social work practice (Morris and Connolly, 2012) there is a significant body of evidence that supports this claim.

What are FGCs?

 FGCs are a family led approach to decision making. They originated in New Zealand in the late 1980s in response to the disproportionate number of Maori children in the children protection and care system at that time. The approach is said to be based upon Maori cultural principles.

At an FGC, it is the family, not professionals who have the responsibility for decision making and agreeing a plan for the care or protection of vulnerable children and adults in their family. Families are supported in the FGC process by an independent FGC co-ordinator and the local authority is very clear with a family: what the family’s strengths are; what concerns the family need to address at the FGC; what the bottom line is – i.e. what the local authority will not agree to, and what services and support are available to support a family with their plan. It is the responsibility of the local authority to agree a family’s plan if it is safe, legal and addresses all of the identified concerns (Edwards and Parkinson, 2018).

The Current Practice Context

The Family Rights Group (FRG) (2015) estimate that approximately 76% of local authorities have a FGC service. However, FGCs are not embedded in child protection legislation and policy and with the exception of one or two notable examples, FGCs are merely an ‘add on’ to existing child protection processes, with social work teams having the choice whether to offer FGCs to families on their caseload.

The introduction of the Public Law Outline (PLO) in 2008 to offer guidance on the care proceedings process is clear that all family alternatives to local authority care should be explored pre -proceedings and recommends FGCs as an example of good practice (Evans, 2011). It stops short of stating that families should be offered a FGC prior to the court process commencing.

The PLO has ensured that many local authority FGC services have shifted their focus from offering FGCs at earlier stages of the safeguarding process to offering them only at the pre-proceedings stage to ensure that the statutory requirement to exploring kinship alternatives to care is met (FRG, 2009). This has meant that in many local authorities, it is less likely that families will be offered an FGC at the early stages of the child protection process.

A Model for Change

There is a substantial international evidence base for FGCs. Edwards and Parkinson (2018) in a review of this evidence base found that FGCs have the potential to:

1) Reduce the number of children entering state care

2) Ensure that children remain in the care of their families

3) Improve contact arrangements between children in care and their families

4) Support families to develop safe plans for children

5) Ensure that children and families feel more engaged in child protection processes

6) Ensure that more fathers are engaged than in traditional child protection processes.

Another significant area highlighted by the research has been the engagement of families, and their satisfaction with the FGC process. Evidence suggests that families are more satisfied with FGCs than traditional local authority processes and are more likely to engage with professionals as a result (see Brady and Miller, 2009). The research suggests that relationships between families and professionals and amongst professionals themselves improve as a result of the FGC process (Walker, 2005).

This is significant when one considers that strong family relationships are a protective factor for children (Rogers-Baber, 2017) and relationship -based social work practice with families is widely acknowledged to achieve better outcomes for users of social work services (Stuart, 2020).

However, despite this evidence, one of the most significant hurdles, which has thus far prevented FGCs from becoming fully embedded in social work processes is the lack of what is perceived to be a robust evidence base for practice, with a shortage of longitudinal and comparative studies demonstrating the effectiveness of FGCs. What Works (2020) undertook a systematic review on the effectiveness of FGCs in the child protection context and concluded that there was little evidence that FGCs improve outcomes in child protection and reduce the numbers of children entering local authority care. However, this review focused only on Randomised Control Studies (RCTs) and excluded a wealth of qualitative pieces of research on the basis that they were not sufficiently robust. A number of social work academics expressed concern about the ethics of measuring the success of FGCs using RCTs, as using the approach ensures that families who might benefit from a FGC are denied a service, if they are part of a control group (Turner, 2019). Furthermore, in dismissing other qualitative pieces of research, the review has chosen to ignore the voices of professionals delivering FGCs and those with lived experience who have shared their experiences of FGCs as part of research. Indeed, one of the concerns expressed about the proposed care review is that it is dismissing the voices of families who have experienced chid protection processes and care experienced individuals, as well as social work professionals, in favour of a panel of largely civil servants with no experience of social work or social work processes (BASW, 2021). These expressed concerns about the lack of an evidence base for FGCs is potentially a convenient smokescreen to mask a reluctance of social work policy makers to ‘share’ power with service users and support a system which privileges the service user voice. Furthermore, FGCs are perceived to be a costly service, with the average FGC costing £2418 (Mason et al, 2017). The DfE has made it very clear that there is going to be no more money available to support the Care Review (Simpson, 2021). However, if cost is a key factor here, research has highlighted the potential cost benefits to local authorities who have implemented FGCs. For example, recent figures from Coventry City Council (2013) estimated that the city’s FGC service made an annual cost saving of between £651,000 and £1,230,000. Furthermore, the cost is not just financial – there are psychological, emotional, ethical and rights- based costs for not allowing children and families to have a say to in decision making about their lives. There is an argument that whatever the possible outcomes from an FGC, they should be offered to families, as it is ‘the right thing to do’, in line with social work values and ethics.

 FGCs as part of the statutory process: a note of caution

The fundamental principle of FGCs is about empowering families to make decisions for themselves and to take collective responsibility for individuals within their family. A family have the right to choose whether they have an FGC or not.  A question arises then about how empowering an FGC can truly be if it is a statutory part of the child protection process and one which families feel obliged to engage in. Indeed, evidence from New Zealand suggests that nearly 30 years after their implementation, FGCs have become a part of an adversarial legal process and that the model has been ‘watered down’. There are many cases, for example when families are not offered private family time, which is a core part of the process and where FGCs are being viewed as a ‘tick box’ exercise, rather than a way of meaningfully engaging families (Child, Youth and Family, 2012).

Connolly (2006) in a study on the attitudes of 46 FGC coordinators, found that there was a tension between finding solutions that preserved the integrity of the family and meeting the legal requirements of the child protection process. Concerns raised focused on: questions about how much power families really have in the FGC process when professionals ultimately have to agree to a family’s plan; how the philosophy of FGCs fit into an increasingly risk-averse chid protection system; the professionalisation of the coordinator role and the lack of resources and services sometimes available to meet a family’s plan.

However, on the other hand, there is the argument that legally mandating service provision leads to a sharper focus and better decision making, which is exemplified in the case of Hawaii, who offer a state- wide FGC service. This service has resulted in a decreased number of child protection cases reaching the court process, a reduction in looked after children and where children need to be looked after, a decreased number of placement moves (Walker, 2005). What is clear is that for FGCs to be successful, they need to be an embedded part of a child protection culture and process, rather than just an ‘add on’ service (Doolan, 2007). Family led decision making should be at the heart of the child protection process. It is clear from the research that actively engaging families in decision making leads to better outcomes, ensures that risk is addressed, and children are safeguarded from harm. FGCs are a tried and tested model of family led decision making which are part of the legislative child protection process in New Zealand, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland so there is no reason to suggest that they could not be successfully applied in the UK context. After all, we already have lessons from the Leeds FGC service, which has been a part of a DfE pilot, in embedding FGCs in child protection processes. The resulting evaluation report (Mason et al, 2017) found that FGCs resulted in fewer child protection plans, reduced involvement of social work services and increased satisfaction of family members. This is consistent with outcomes demonstrated in the existing body of international literature. Let’s take this existing learning and use it to create a child protection system that we can be proud of and one which is consistent with core social work values and principles.

Kate Parkinson, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Salford and former FGC Practitioner/Manager.

Additional References

Brady, B. and Miller, M. (2009) Barnardos Family Welfare Conference Project, South Tipperary: Evaluation Report, Galway, NUI Child and Family Research Centre.                                     

Doolan, M. (2007) Working towards an effective agency mandate for family group conferences. In Ashley, C. and Nixon, P. (eds.) Family group conferences: Where next? Policies and practices for the future. London: Family Rights Group.

Family Rights Group (2015) Data on the number of FGC services in the UK’, unpublished, London: Family Rights Group.

Kay Everard Special Edition

The Care Review – It’s not the system, but the people who make it – time to end restructures and invest in people

I do not think I would be considered particularly radical for suggesting that there is a lack of sufficient funding and resources in early help services and children’s social care. A lack of community based resources and support, a crisis in the recruitment and retention of experienced social workers, and an increase in the demand for high level support and protection for children, young people and their families has resulted in an underfunded pressure cooker.

For me, it is not about how we structure ourselves or the model we choose to use, but about the time and space to form meaningful trusted relationships with children, young people and their families. By giving social workers the time to work with people and manageable caseloads, we allow them to form relationships with people that can really change things, but also allow them to feel capable and proud of the work they do.

This is a longstanding issue, Eileen Munro in this article talks about the need to allow social workers to spend more time with children and families. She comments that “we’ve forgotten…how much the human relationship pervades the whole process of trying to engage and work with a family. Your job is not to write beautiful reports and lovely essays. It is to make life different for children.”

The trick is getting the balance between having enough time to spend with families and how we weave our recording processes into this time. Creating plans and assessments which echo the families thoughts, feelings and worries and then helping them to feel that they have power over these records is key.

My hope is that the Care Review considers the following;

Working with people and giving people power over their own lives

In my most recent positions, the organisations in which I worked have used restorative and relational approaches. As Phillipa Shoesmith noted in her recent blog, restorative and relational practice is founded in the belief that “change, learning and growth happens in the context of relationships”. I believe the central tenants of restorative practice – person first, professional second; doing with, not to; and high support/high challenge – lead to creative practices which focus on people and not processes.

Another approach that echo’s these principles is Family Group Conferencing. By giving people power in their lives, promoting self-advocacy to focus on what they find important, and to find natural support and guidance amongst family and friends, we support the building of meaningful relationships and trust.

Modernising practice and recording systems

I have before, talked about using modern technology to both speed up recording and make it more relevant and accessible for children, young people and their families. By using techniques such as video, voice recording, photographs, voice-to-text software and collaborative case recording we can capture children’s voices better, make families feel part of the work we do, and reduce time spent on repetitive recording.

Considering assessments as interventions and using therapeutic methods

As child protection social workers we too often complete assessments and refer onto other services to “do the work”. I believe that this deskills social workers and takes away from the therapeutic “change” work that a lot of workers join the profession to complete. By using systemic theory and motivational interview techniques we can skill up social workers to ensure each session with a family contributes to the ‘assessment’ becoming an intervention in and of itself. Some of the key principles of systemic practice – talking about the ‘doing’ before doing it, slowing down to speed up, and permission seeking – takes time. A worker has to move away from the pressure of timescales and “taking things through the system” and focus more on going at the clients pace and creating an environment where ‘change talk’ can begin.

“Corporate parents” for life

The Care Review must look at how we support our care experienced young people and adults through their whole lives. One of the key things that our cared for young people tell us is that they wish their social workers had spent more time supporting them to repair their relationships with their birth family members because it is these family members who often have more of a presence in their lives post-18. I hope that by expanding Family Group Conferencing, as discussed above, as well as Life Long Links, we can expand on the family network that young people have once they have left local authority care. I also hope that it will consider expanding fantastic projects such as mentoring schemes by Pure Insight allowing professionals who have known that child and young person for many years to stay involved in that adult’s life. We must #EndTheCareCliff – as if we don’t we will never truly have a trauma-informed and relational system. And lastly, the issues with restructures…

Children’s services nationally spends significant amounts of time and money restructuring. Yet we still have the longstanding issues, such as; poor staff retention & recruitment, lack of consistently high quality work, children & families feeling ‘done to’ & un-supported and a lack of quality time spent with families. Without proper investment through central government in funding, resources and technology, restructuring services is a bit like re-arranging the chairs on the titanic.


We need to stop re-thinking how professionals are organised within systems, stop looking internally for solutions and listen to what children and young people say about how they experience practice: ‘listen to us’, ‘tell us what is happening’, ‘do not make us repeat our story to different people all the time’, and ‘help us stay in touch with our siblings and our families’.

Social workers need to be given space by their organisations to create relationships with children, young people and their families. We need to “slow down to speed up”, and this needs to be valued by senior managers so that social workers feel able to do this. Whether that’s through further funding, creative technology or new ways of training practitioners, the care review needs to give the system the scaffolding to do this.

Kay Everard