Open letter to social workers

Dear Social Workers

My name is Josh MacAlister and 14 months ago the government asked me to lead an independent review of children’s social care. Today, I have published a comprehensive report and reform plan, with a clear set of recommendations and costs, that we are asking the government to support and implement.

During this review we have met with more than 2,800 professionals who work tirelessly, day in, day out, with children and young people. The professionals we met – like you – have demonstrated enormous dedication to children and families. However, many feel that the existing system hinders, rather than supports them.

Too often I have heard stories of social workers who find the realities of the profession do not align with the role they trained for. Instead of doing direct work with children and families, social workers are burdened with unnecessary bureaucracy, asked to refer families to other services rather than provide help themselves and are expected to move into management roles which have no foot in direct practice, in order to progress their career.

 We need to reset this – you need to be supported to ensure children and families get better outcomes than they currently do. This should be through a new approach to multi-disciplinary Family Help where the help we offer families is locally based, skilled, and delivered by you rather than continuously commissioned out. Where children are at risk of harm it means a more decisive and focussed child protection response, led by those of you with the greatest expertise and it means placing more trust in the potential of family networks to provide care for family members. When care is needed, the obsession of the system needs to be on ensuring every young person can build and maintain loving relationships in homes that are healing, and laying foundations for life in the care experienced community. 

The package of recommendations in our report create a radically new offer for social workers.

First, I have recommended a new approach and additional investment to support your professional development. I am recommending a five year Early Career Framework which would provide structured training and support in the first years of being a social worker. The aim would be to offer you a route to remain in practice in the long term whilst also getting comprehensive development. These changes would be supported through introducing national pay scales which bring greater parity between local authorities and mean that as you gain experience you earn more by remaining in practice.

This recommendation for a new Early Career Framework for social workers is particularly important for changes we recommend in how we help families and protect children. I am proposing that work currently categorised as ‘Child in Need’ and targeted early help become one simpler category of Family Help. Children and families with a Family Help plan would receive help from multi-disciplinary teams that would be based in community settings – like schools and family hubs – and these teams would have the resources to provide the direct help to families that they need. I am recommending an injection of nearly £2bn over four years to create this new Family Help service. If this happens it will mean that more of you would work in teams with professionals from other disciplines and that you would be based in a specific neighbourhood with more time to work more intensively with fewer families.

When significant harm is suspected or identified, I am saying that only the most experienced social workers (those who have completed the Early Career Framework) would undertake critical functions, such as a child protection investigation. This new Expert Practitioner title would come with a salary to reflect the knowledge and skill of those undertaking the role. To ensure that helping families and protecting children are done together, with a focus on both, we recommend that children and families with a child protection plan should be co-worked by both the Expert Practitioner and a Family Help team member. The introduction of this co-working model for all child protection plans will address the weaknesses in our system where social workers early in their career are often left to make incredibly difficult judgements by themselves.

When children become looked after, many more experienced social workers choose to become Independent Reviewing Officers so that they can remain rooted in practice and spend time with children and families. I am recommending that we should trust case-holding social workers more to champion the interests of children, and that we should replace aspects of the IRO role with a new independent national advocacy service which sits outside the local authority and provides looked after children with an independent Advocate. Many of you may be interested to see our other recommendations on the workforce, including those which aim to get social workers spending more time with children and families, in a system which values expertise and rewards social workers through pay for their knowledge, skills and experience.

Our recommendations will mean you are able to spend more time working directly with children and families at the same time as having workload pressures be reduced. I know that many of you share the frustration that seemingly straightforward issues get in the way of this currently. Things like poor IT and outdated and burdensome case management systems, or because the services which provide help to families are commissioned rather than delivered by your teams directly. It is also important that children’s social care should be organised more closely around when families are together – more often at the weekend and in evenings. This should provide an opportunity for employers to consider more flexible ways for you and your colleagues to work. Furthermore, it is important that we find ways to get all social workers to continue spending time in practice as they progress into management or become academics or policy makers. This was a theme raised by Eileen Munro 12 years ago but little progress has been made. That is why I recommend that all registered social workers should spend at least 100 hours in direct practice with children and families or adults each year in order to keep their professional registration. Finally, I know that many social workers leave full-time employment with a local authority to work for agencies. Whilst some small agency use is necessary in any public service, agency use in social work is damagingly high. Agencies are costly, draining resources from the system, and they undermine long-term relationships between professionals and families. I have recommended that new regional staff banks should be established to rival private agencies and new rules should be introduced to curtail the use of agencies.

I have only been able to develop such a comprehensive set of recommendations thanks to the time and generosity of thousands of social workers during the last 14 months. Please take the time to read all the recommendations I have published in our report today, and I hope that you will be able to support these and see your voice in them. If you do, please continue to champion the recommendations, speak to your friends, colleagues and managers about them, and encourage government to swiftly introduce the reforms that are so urgently needed to improve the lives of children and families.

You can read the final report on our website here alongside supporting documents which include more information on the recommendations, a children and young people’s version of the report and a children’s rights impact statement.

Josh MacAlister

Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

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