Boosting children’s chances

23 November 2021

Former secondary school teacher Josh MacAlister is the man leading what he bills as a once in a generation chance to transform the system and improve the lives of children and families.

He took up the role of chair of the independent review of children’s social care in England at the start of this year. Prior to that he was at the helm of Frontline, a charity he set up in 2013 with the aim of encouraging new professionals to become social workers and sharpening their leadership skills. The  approach he’s taken so far during this pivotal review has been refreshingly inclusive and open. He’s not a man afraid of upfront public discussion.

He’s placed enormous emphasis on seeking out the views of those with lived experience of children’s social care. In Whitehaven in Cumbria this month, as part of the inquiry’s ‘deep dives’ into provision in ten local areas (see box below ) to inform the review, he talked on Twitter about ‘humbling conversations with care experienced people and parents about things that need to change in our child welfare system’.

The inquiry launched in January against a background of a pandemic, growing numbers of looked after children, spiralling costs and a system creaking under huge strain. The review’s interim report Case for Change concluded in June that not enough is being done to help families, and a child protection system is needed that keeps children safe through more effective support and decisive action. It also stated that care must ‘build rather than break relationships’ and to make change happen some of the underpinning issues in the system have to be addressed.

The chair has also welcomed the interim report from the Competitions and Markets Authority this autumn into children’s homes and fostering, and said its main findings – that too many vulnerable children are being placed in accommodation that doesn’t meet their needs - echoed the concerns he raised in the Case for Change report.

In September Mr MacAlister also identified what he called three significant ‘dilemmas’ the review team are working through, ‘from divergent messages picked up so far’, that he said ‘cut across almost all areas of children’s social care’. In his view, resolving the tensions in these is the key to unlocking the most significant and long-standing problems in the system. He outlined those three dilemmas as:

  • The continuum of help and protection: Professionals are more likely to tell the review that help and protection needs to be done together, whereas parents are more likely to say that having the same group of professionals doing both presents problems
  • Local, regional, national: Doing parts of children’s social care nationally or regionally could address wide and concerning variation in decision making, support, and services, and ‘a clean break with the old might allow for something new and better to emerge’. But local authorities are well established ‘and cultural change would be disruptive and could distract from what may lead to bigger change for children and families – changing the culture, improving management and leadership, or increasing opportunities for professional development’.
  • Freedom and responsibility: The way children’s social care works is too prescriptive, bureaucratic and it pulls practitioners away from spending time with children and families. ‘However removing duties, guidance or prescription in a system with wide inconsistency and underlying performance issues could be unsafe for children.’

Speaking to The MJ ahead of a workshop appearance this Friday at the National Children and Adult Services Conference, he said all three are ‘highly relevant to local government’. And earlier this week he told delegates at the County Councils Network (CCN) conference that some parts of children's social services may be better provided at a national level

He continued: ‘For local authorities there is this issue about how we do both a really good job of running a child protection system that keeps people safe, and also run a comprehensive and low stigma family help offer.’

He said he has heard very persuasively from people currently running the system that there are real benefits to doing both together. ‘The last thing you’d want to see is families being moved back and forth between two very different teams with completely different mindsets and people rightly say that child protection is everyone’s business, which is true.

‘But that doesn’t resolve the tension here which is that there is this point in the continuum of health and protection where we tell parents they need to engage in services and that compulsion does shape a lot of how we do family help in England.’

What have the ‘deep dives’ in local authorities uncovered? He pointed to a ‘mixed picture’ on whether those tensions are being resolved successfully. In some local areas ‘the way they do social work with families is so respectful, engaging and skilled that you see social workers stick with families as risks might go up and down’.

This tells you that it can be done, he added: ‘But there are other places where that preoccupation around the child protection end of the system has left the family help service neglected and various situations where the relationship between the local authority service and families in that area is not set up for effectively responding to families’ needs.’

Last week a report published by the House of Lords’ Public Service Committee called for a reversal of a decade of cuts to children’s services. And the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ submission to the Spending Review estimated that children’s services needs a significant investment of between £4.1bn and £4.5bn for each year of the Spending Review, and said funding for innovation and research must be in addition to this. Are the tensions and problems in local areas the result of culture, or of a lack of funding and capacity? ‘I think it’s almost always a case of both.’

He said it is ‘pretty exceptional’ when leaders can both change the culture within a service and a council more widely, and then over a number of years rebalance where they are spending their money. ‘There are some examples of that within the deep dives of that exceptional leadership. The question for the review is how confident can we be that exceptional leadership is going to solve this everywhere.’

On funding, he pointed to ‘a continual march of money going from the family help end of the system towards the crisis spend end of the system and we need to reverse that’.

It seems as if the Government is listening to his views. In August he called for significant additional spending on effective family help. Speaking after the Spending Review, he welcomed the news of the Government’s commitment of an additional £200m over three years to expand the Supporting Families programme. This should, he said on Twitter, ‘mean a 40% increase in funding for the programme, and an additional £1.3m on average for each local authority’.

The review is now moving into its final few months, and its recommendations are due next spring. He said those  ‘will be costed, we’ll be publishing that, we’ll be giving it to Government, and persuading the Treasury and others that there is no future option here on children’s social care that isn’t going to cost more money’.

He added in conclusion: ‘When we published the Case for Change I described the children’s social care system as a 30-year-old stack of Jenga. The last thing I would want to do at the review is just add more to that very complicated system and not try to do something to actually make it simpler but also help give it some firmer foundations.’

Where are the local authority deep dives taking place? 

  • Cumbria 
  • Camden 
  • Darlington
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Peterborough
  • North Lincolnshire
  • Enfield 
  • Southampton 
  • Bath & North East Somerset
  • Wolverhampton

What criteria did the review team use to select the 10 areas? 

According to the review, areas were ‘invited to take part with invitations being extended to local authorities which represent the true variety of communities across England, taking into account a range of characteristics’ including: 

  • Population demographics
  • Deprivation levels 
  • A spread of urban and rural
  • Geography - with every English region represented 
  • Ofsted rating 
  • Spend per child
  • Numbers of children entering care
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