Josh MacAlister speech to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Conference 2021

OPEN 

Thank you for the introduction Stuart, and Charlotte and ADCS  for your invitation to speak today and for dedicating such a substantial part of your agenda to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

My first commitment when taking on this role four months ago was to listen deeply and think boldly. That has meant that the review has prioritised listening directly to over one thousand people who have lived experience of children’s social care and those who work in the field. The power of listening to so many is that you start to get an unvarnished and unfiltered perspective on how we are doing.

AMAZING STORIES 

I’ve had the privilege to hear directly some amazing stories:

  • Of social workers working to keep families on track and children safe and connected. Holding the pen with a family to make sure they get access to benefits, creatively supporting a parent to relocate their job so that they spend less time commuting, bringing the wider family into a conversation about safety and change for the first time, going with a 17 year to their university admissions interview – which is over 100 miles from where they lived and on a weekend.
  • Of kinship carers stepping up to love and support children while dealing with the trauma which saw the parent (often their own child) unable to do this themselves
  • Of professionals finding new ways of working to reach families despite budget cuts and despite a pandemic

… so many examples and at the centre of these stories are special individuals who have gone above and beyond. So I want to start my speech today with a special thanks to social workers and others who have made positive and life changing differences to the lives of so many.

Covid has made you and your teams work harder. I have seen for myself just how much grit and commitment those in children’s social care have shown in continuing to stand by children and their families through the tumult and disruption of the pandemic.

If anything, Covid has more clearly brought into view that the services you lead sit at the apex of how we respond to the three giants of injustice, inequality and isolation for the most vulnerable children and their families. Tackling these ills is what drew me to this work. And I know it is the knowledge that this work matters that keeps you going when you’re stuck in late night scrutiny committee meetings, or you’re going through a tenth consecutive round of budget cuts or taking part in a hastily conceived council transformation programme.

PAINFUL STORIES 

It’s this same motivation that makes it hard to hear the painful stories when we haven’t done well enough for children or families.

It is these, unfiltered, unvarnished stories that I promised to put at the centre of this review:

  • Intergenerational cycles of care where despite countless professionals being involved, significant sums of money being spent and plenty of assessments, parents who themselves grew up with trauma and entered care are themselves now experiencing the loss of losing their child to the same system.
  • Too many stories of bewilderment and loneliness from care leavers who we too often send into the world with too few adults or relationships to guide and support them in life.
  • Tales of teenagers who are being ruthlessly exploited – victims who themselves are groomed into perpetrators – and services that are failing to collectively grip the issues involved.
  • Too many foster carers, adopters, kinship carers, professionals and children wearily telling me that they have another new social worker to work with, make introductions to and explain their situation to.
  • And the dehumanising impact rigid compliance with process and rules can have when they stand in the way of seeing children and families as human beings.

Each of us has a choice when we hear these stories – defend the status quo or take a step back from our current role in the system and its constraints and think boldly. 

CASE FOR CHANGE 

Last month I set out the Case for Change, the first major publication from the Review and our attempt to set out the problems as we see them in the current system.

The report covered the full spectrum of children’s social care but one of the standout stories on publication day was that our children’s social care system is balanced too far towards investigating over helping. Last year there were 135,000 section 47 enquiries resulting in no child protection plan – there’s been a 129% increase in these enquiries in 10 years, combined with a 35 percent real terms drop in spending on support for families. I wanted to highlight the trend towards an increasingly adversarial system that is both less able to support parents or protect children.

I know that not all ‘no further actions’ in the 135,000 mean that nothing happened or that the investigation was unwarranted. But the sheer increase in the number of these investigations over recent years demands, at the very least, that we stop and think about how we are working with families.

This is not just about section 47 enquiries:

  • It’s also about families who tell us they are cajoled onto Child in Need plans that come with little meaningful help, knowing that if they decline to engage there could be a threat of more serious involvement.
  • It’s about parents of children with disabilities describing to the review time and again that asking for support means being met with safeguarding action.
  • And it’s the growing research into the disrespectful interactions some services are having with families

Alongside these issues it is entirely consistent to want better quality and speedier decision making in relation to significant harm, or the risk of significant harm. The Case for Change is explicit in raising these issues. We need to be more decisive in making decisions if it is clear that support will not lead to enough change with families, keeping children at the centre of our decision making.

Over one fifth of the Child Protection Plans starting in 2019/20, were repeat plans. Child protection should sustainably reduce risk in most cases yet over 20 percent of children are going around the circuit. Assessment without supportive intervention makes it hard to monitor and reduce risk, and too often results in a critical incident followed by court applications driven by a crisis response.

So this is a “both, and” not “either or” discussion about improving the system so that it better responds to needs of children and families, can get off on the right foot with offering help and can act decisively in relation to significant harm.

It is a nuanced debate – I know that and I know you know because it’s from years of conversations and advice from many of you that I have learned about the balance you need to strike and the dilemmas you face.

PAST REVIEWS

I am acutely aware that this is not the first review in children’s social care this generation, let alone this decade.

A child born at the time of the Munro review is now getting ready to start secondary school. The baby born when the Laming inquiry published could be starting university in a few weeks time. And looking at your youthful faces most of us at this event were children (or maybe teenagers!) when the Children Act was passed and the foundational principles of our current system were set.

Where do we want to be 10 years from now? What needs to be different this time so that sincere and carefully considered reports and recommendations translate into substantial, positive and lasting solutions to problems that we are all tired of describing?

 

STEP OUT OF OUR COMFORT ZONE

One thing that I believe will need to be different is that those of us, the people who work in and around this system – locally and nationally- must dig deep, step out of our comfort zone and come up with the recommendations needed – even if those recommendations run counter to our own prior work or call into question the way we’ve done things until now.

And this leads me to my main message for you as the Association of Directors leading children’s services and the core of children’s social care work. Engage openly with the review, own the areas where you could do better and help us find answers.

Otherwise we risk getting stuck into an old pattern of dialogue that I think we’re all tired of and does not serve children and families well.

The old dialogue would go something like this.

The review sets out problems in a particular area and asks a question:

  • what is needed to reduce the adversarial nature of the system,
  • or improve practitioner knowledge and decision making,
  • or address deep and concerning variations in rates of care proceedings.

An all too common old response would be to go first to the role of national government, the role of Ofsted, the role of poverty, cuts in funding, the failings or lack of contribution from partner agencies, the attitudes of the public, the role of the media, and then once that context is covered the refrain that we have the “safest child protection system in the world”.

Do not get me wrong. All these contextual factors that ADCS have raised are valid and play a part. Each of them is covered in the Case for Change in some detail and I make, and will continue to make, many of these points to other players in the system – including central government.

There are other parts of the public sector that are in this old pattern too – health services say the same about children’s services, police complain about information sharing from CSC, those in the centre of government are frustrated at their inability to affect change on the system. Commissioners blame providers. Providers blame commissioners. The finger always points elsewhere.

I know that all of you are slogging your guts out and many of you are running impressive services and you have just cause to be proud. But important parts of our children social care system are broken, outcomes for too many children are too poor, the experience for too many parents and families lack dignity and respect, and variations in performance of services and involvements with families are a public policy concern and moral imperative that need addressing.

Refracting the sharp light of these realities I am sharing with you through a thick lens of ‘context’ isn’t good enough anymore. You are not bystanders in children’s social care – you are the leaders of it with the power to make a difference for the most vulnerable children in society and I want to hear from you what future changes might ask of you.

I know from conversations that there are many of you in the audience who want to move on from this old dialogue and are eager to share your thoughts on how children’s social care will need to do things differently in the future. I have heard from many of your own social workers directly over the years of their pent-up desire for this honest conversation where we all take responsibility for shaping the future.

For this review to be different we need to stand together in this uncomfortable space and sit with criticism. It won’t make you wrong or bad or to blame. The problems we’re facing are not new or the fault of any one service or person. But they are big and that must surely ask us to be bigger too.  Our ability to hear the criticism and own it will instead be a reflection of a service with self-confidence, sat at the table considering what future changes might ask of you and your services. Full contributors, not commentators.

I have responsibility for this too. I am committed to listening to you and understanding your positions and I need to do this over the course of the review. I will highlight problems but when I do I need to do this with an understanding of the wider context you’re working in. And I need to keep inviting and getting feedback – that’s why I’ve published the Case for Change so early in the review and why I want you to tell me if we have missed or misunderstood any of that evidence.

The review is asking big question that get right to the heart of your expertise and that put the services you run centre stage:

  • How do we get the balance right between support and protection and address the tensions that come about from the same system doing both?
  • What’s the approach we will need to take in the future so that teenagers facing harms outside the home are properly protected?
  • How do we ensure we have the right homes in the right places with the right support for children in care? And what is the role of residential care in our system?
  • How do we go beyond trying and often failing to provide care as a service?

What do these questions mean for you and your services and what might they ask of you in the future? I know already from reports from ADCS and a number of conversations with you that you already have creative and thoughtful suggestions that merit proper consideration.

If we can give our all to honestly facing into these questions and more in the months ahead, we stand a better chance of the next generation looking back at this as the moment that those in charge seized the chance to build a children’s social care system that England can be proud of, that families deserve and that children need.

Thank you.

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