Probing the case for change

By Kathy Evans | 19 July 2021

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care must name the causes of today’s child welfare inequalities if it is to hit the mark, or it will risk repeating history rather than changing it, argues Kathy Evans

The Case for Change was published recently, as the first consultative document to emerge from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. It doesn’t offer firm proposals about the changes the review might eventually recommend, rather it lay outs the broad scope of what’s been heard and learnt in the first three months, the critical problems that will need to be addressed, and some key questions we are all asked to contribute our thoughts and expertise on.As a description of the present state of children’s social care, the Case for Change is compellingly written. It raises many of the huge systemic factors that I know many in the sector feared would be ‘out of scope’ or beyond the contractual terms of the review.

The profound role and influence of family poverty and community deprivation in children’s lives, and on the levels of need for children’s social care, are given significant attention. So is the ethically and financially contentious state of the care provider markets.

To many of us who have been raising the alarm about these deep-rooted problems their recognition in the Case for Change is a welcome signal that those concerns have at least been registered, and that submissions about what to do about them are actively sought.

A review in the true sense of the word needs not only an understanding of the present state of affairs, but also a clear-eyed analysis of the past that led to the present, and in several areas I fear the analysis of even our recent past is lacking. Child poverty, for example, is rising today, but a decade ago it was falling.

Child poverty is a problem that history proves is very directly determined by public policy – it is created or reduced by government decisions, not simply a prevailing societal weather condition in which social work takes place. Unless the causal factors of today’s child welfare inequalities are accurately named in the course of this review, the solutions arrived at could fail to hit their mark, and will risk repeating rather than changing our history.

A significant chapter of the Case for Change addresses the question of whether the current system and practice resorts “too quickly” to investigation and draconian protection measures, when earlier family support should be the first response.

It is discussed almost as if it were a brand new issue, and one of poor decision-making in social work, rather than being possibly the oldest systemic issue in the history of children’s social care.

The question of why the preventative, supportive intentions of Section 17 weren’t materialising in practice was a subject the architect of the Children Act 1989, Rupert Hughes, addressed with characteristic elegance in an essay he wrote for Children England 10 years after the Act was passed. In it he said, “This [Act] was designed to remind authorities that there is no sharp line between need and risk or between support and protection and that the services needed to be seen more as a continuum with a balanced provision targeted at the various degrees of need.”

The law has in fact been clear for over 30 years about what is presented in the Case for Change as a very modern conundrum. When Section 17 expresses so clearly the duty to provide whatever support a family needs to be able to care for and nurture their own children, we have to ask why we have still not achieved the right balance in practice? Why would a new, more ‘clearly defined’ family support duty help now, if existing, well-expressed support duties haven’t done the job before? These are deeper questions that must be addressed in the next stages of the review.

Answering those questions requires us to name the biggest elephant in the historical analysis room - council finance. Children’s services budgets and spending are analysed, and acknowledged as under severe “pressure” in the Case for Change, but that gets nowhere close to the scale of the problem. At Rupert Hughes’ memorial in 2015, Virginia Bottomley recounted the decisions they’d had to make about the right way to fund the vision and duties of the Children Act 1989.

Their clear, reasoned answer was the Revenue Support Grant. One of the reasons, she said, was that it would always be there. This week a third English council, Slough, declared S114 bankruptcy, and the NAO warns 25 more may follow soon. The Revenue Support Grant that the Children Act was designed to rely on is effectively gone, leaving no reliable, national core funding stream for children’s social care at all.

The risk of failing to comprehend this history of system design (and design failure) is that without it the review comes up with more ‘sharp lines’ and fragmentation, instead of unringfenced investment in a continuum of support and protection; more superficial short-term pots of time-limited, competitive bidding rounds while ignoring all councils’ longevity and financial sustainability; more ‘innovation’ programmes to scale-up the latest voguish practice models in selected places, like a Jenga block pulled out of its context and balanced precariously back on top of a weakening tower that has no solid foundations.

Our history should tell us that what’s needed in future is to invest in every child and every family in every community, as section 17 of the Children Act always envisaged, if we are to be sure that any child is only ever taken into care because nothing else will meet their need for safety. It requires a new reliable, long-term funding architecture for all councils – a Children Act Funding Formula – and Children England will be passionately making the case for that change in our submissions to the consultation.

Kathy Evans is CEO at Children England


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