The recent ministerial announcement of a “bold and wide-ranging” review of children’s social care in England was timely, maybe even tardy. Few would deny change is needed: after a decade of austerity the system is at breaking point, and in parts chaotic, while the life chances of the growing cohort of children taken into care remain stubbornly dismal. But will the review be as comprehensive as it suggests?
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has promised an inquiry of the root-and-branch kind: everything will be examined, from early years help to child protection, fostering and kinship care and care homes. It will be independent, will listen to children and care leavers, and its recommendations will feed into “ambitious and deliverable” reforms tackling thorny issues such as reducing the number of children entering care.
These are pressing issues. In 2011 there were 65,520 looked-after children in England; that had risen to more than 80,000 by the end of March 2020. The number of children on child protection plans has increased by more than half over the past decade. Cases have become more complex and serious – there have been big increases in numbers of children assessed by councils as suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.
Residential provision is a dysfunctional mess, highlighted by the costly scandal of unregulated children’s care homes. For many children in care the experience is appalling. Once out of it, care leavers remain disproportionately likely to end up homeless or in prison. Educational outcomes are dismal: 43% of all 19 year-olds are at university; for care leavers that figure is just 13%.
This is a field in which the government’s stated aim of “levelling up” ought to have real meaning, not least in preventing children going into care. There are huge regional and economic inequalities in care needs. In the affluent home counties borough of Wokingham, 24 children in every 10,000 are in care. By contrast, in the deprived seaside town of Blackpool, 223 children in every 10,000 are in care.
And yet the review was greeted, one sensed, with apprehension rather than unbridled excitement in wider social work and local authority circles. Williamson enthused over the “once in a lifetime opportunities” afforded by such a comprehensive review. For many working in and around the system, however, the nagging question was: opportunity for what?
A brief look at the recent history of government policy in children’s social care gives a clue as to why so many are nervous. The common thread of Tory thinking in this area has been the desire to detach social services provision from council control, academy trust-style, and create outsourcing markets for private providers, justified on the optimistic grounds that all this will let innovation bloom and drive down costs.
Thus in 2014, the then coalition education secretary, Michael Gove, notoriously proposed allowing private companies to bid to run core child protection services, giving profit-seeking entities the power to take children from their families. Two years later the government attempted to legislate to strip away protections for children built up over decades since the landmark 1989 Children Act. Both proposals were defeated, the former amid widespread public and professional opposition.
This hardly inspires a deep well of trust. Many doubt the independence of the review chair, Josh MacAlister, the founder of Frontline (the social work version of Teach First, which fast-tracks graduates into the teaching profession). For some he is a divisive figure, a chumocrat, too close to government and corporate interests (others point to his drive and commitment, and genuine zeal to improve children’s care).
Another concern is that the terms of reference do not require asking if children’s social care is adequately funded. The pandemic, and the inevitable reckoning for social services, is astonishingly not mentioned. Will the review make the link between poverty, austerity and rising pressure on families, or acknowledge that where we are now follows years of chronic local authority underfunding, and the evisceration of early years services?
It feels churlish to doubt the intentions of someone who promises to deliver a plan to “extend the joy, growth and safety of childhood and the esteem, love and security of family life to all children”. But the worry is that MacAlister will fulfil what many believe is the review’s unspoken remit: to provide a dull, predictable charter for market-style reforms. The fear is that for all the hype, it will be neither honest enough nor bold enough.
• Patrick Butler is the Guardian’s social policy editor