Independent Review of Children’s Social Care Case for Change

The Local Government Association welcomes the independent review of children’s social care, a once in a generation opportunity to ensure that the system is set up, resourced and operating in the best possible way to keep children and young people safe and ensure they can enjoy their lives and fulfil their potential.


Introduction

Local Government Association response to consultation

The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We are a politically led, cross-party membership organisation, representing councils from England and Wales.

Our role is to support, promote and improve local government, and raise national awareness of the work of councils. Our ultimate ambition is to support councils to deliver local solutions to national problems.

We are pleased to respond to submit this consultation on the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care case for change.

Key summary

  • The Local Government Association welcomes the independent review of children’s social care, a once in a generation opportunity to ensure that the system is set up, resourced and operating in the best possible way to keep children and young people safe and ensure they can enjoy their lives and fulfil their potential.
  • The case for change reflects a range of issues that councils have been raising for some years, including the need for government departments to work better together, challenges around the placements ‘market’ and the significant funding pressures. We have also been advocating for making sure we can give children and families the right support at the right time, including investment in preventative and early help services. We agree with many of the points raised in the report and look forward to working with the review team to identify potential solutions.
  • The publication also draws together a wide range of helpful evidence to support the next phase of the review, while raising important questions to challenge current policy and practice to identify where we as a country must do better for children and families.
  • This submission outlines areas in which we believe further investigation is required. These do not all fall directly within the remit of children’s social care; however to deliver real change, we cannot discount the complexity of children’s lives, nor the systems within which children’s social care operates. We need all government departments working together, and hope the review can lead to a cross-Whitehall approach to improving the lives of children and their families.

Context

While providing helpful detail around the number of children in care, spend on children’s services and some analysis of current challenges within the system, we do not believe the case for change fully articulated the context in which services are currently operating.

In discussing levels of child protection investigations and risk aversion in the system, the report fails to acknowledge the role of the inspectorate, Ofsted, in this. As one respondent to the 2018 Care Crisis Review noted, “inspection regimes and court process create a constant pressure and expectations which at times pushes [social work] into process thinking rather than balanced professional judgement”. Another highlighted that “when LAs are in intervention the response is to become risk averse because of the high level of scrutiny.” While the introduction of the ILACS framework has been well received by councils and the inspectorate remains committed to working with councils to improve support for children, it remains the case that the inspection regime drives a degree of risk aversion within many children’s services departments.

This issue is also highlighted by North East Directors of Children’s Services in their submission to this review, which also notes challenges around differing perceptions of and responses to risk across different organisations and their respective inspectorates.

​​​​​​​The report does not reflect on the impact of high-profile cases such as that of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly or Daniel Pelka. The devastating nature of these cases, along with the media and parliamentary response to those involved in them, has had a lasting impact on children’s social care as noted in the Care Crisis Review. This includes the level of risk that services may be prepared to hold, and heightened public awareness of and expectations around children’s safety and wellbeing.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​It is vital that children’s social care remains open to critique and constant self-reflection. We know that outcomes for children with experience of children’s social care are often worse than those of their peers, and we must continue to strive for improvement. However, we must also recognise that thanks to the dedicated work of those in children’s social care, health, the police and partner organisations, England remains one of the safest places in the world to grow up. Many children in care also have very good experiences, with children in foster care in particular reporting feeling safe and well looked after and educational outcomes that improve the longer a child is in care. In working to improve outcomes across the system, we must be careful to retain and build on our strengths too.

Support for families

We support the ambition of the report to provide more support to children and families, though note in this submission and in our discussions with the review team the significant challenges in delivering this ambition including funding, disjointed approaches across Government and the (perceived or actual) tolerance of risk by the inspectorate.

We are confident that a system which undertakes both support for families and child protection is able to perform both roles well. A key skill of social workers is the ability to balance support for children and their families while ensuring children are safe, and there are many examples of excellent practice around the country. It is also the case that any practitioner working with a family to support them will need to consider safeguarding issues throughout, just as we expect all those working with children to do.

Family support, early help and safeguarding services do not operate in silos, rather they operate across a spectrum to support children and families according to their changing needs. Locating these services together allows services to be more responsive to need, avoids children and families falling through service gaps and where this works well, avoids children and families having to re-tell their stories to multiple professionals.

We encourage the review team to consider examples of services being fragmented or transferred to alternative delivery models as part of their evidence gathering here. Recent examples include reforms to the national probation service, the academisation of some schools and building safety. The mixed picture in relation to alternative delivery models for children’s social care should also be carefully considered.

​​​​​​​In order to support children and families at the same time as effectively safeguarding children, social workers must be able to refer into the necessary services. As the case for change report highlights, financial challenges have led to a fall in early help support, while we have also seen cuts to the public health grant and long waiting lists for mental health support. We believe that addressing these service shortfalls would have a far greater impact on our ability to support families, than splitting services.

​​​​​​​The report questions the “role of the children’s social care system in strengthening communities rather than just providing services”. There is no doubt that strong communities can play an important role in supporting families. However, we do not believe that the task of strengthening communities is one that falls to children’s social care departments. Instead, the wider local authority has a key role here as leader of place, alongside central government, the voluntary and community sector, schools, police and others.

​​​​​​​Grassroots organisations can be invaluable in supporting their communities and providing help to families who need it. At the same time, it is important to remember that these can benefit from good quality infrastructure which protects both the organisation and those it works with. Some of this infrastructure has been dismantled in recent years as funding pressures have affected the public, voluntary and community sectors.

​​​​​​​The review may also wish to consider the challenges posed by rising housing costs and falling availability of social and affordable housing. Increasing numbers of families are finding themselves priced out of their local area and forced to move away from their friends, families and the local networks that can provide vital support in times of difficulty. This of course also has implications for children and families in terms of stability and stress. We have called on the Government to bring forward its pledge to end ‘no fault evictions’ so that tenants have greater security, and to set out plans to deliver 100,000 social homes for rent every year

​​​​​​​The report notes variation in spend in services around the country. We agree that it is helpful to understand the reasons for this variation, but caution against trying to identify an “ideal cost” and to recognise the significant variation in local circumstances. Much variation in spend is outside of local authority control, while differing levels of need, service history, local priorities and other issues will play a part. For example, research by Impower for the LGA in 2015 put the cost of an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspection at a minimum of £3 million, while failure or inability by all partners to support children and families early can lead to greater need later. Equally, where spending figures are higher we must consider the impact of this, looking beyond Ofsted ratings towards outcomes for individual children. Finally, it should be noted that in-depth research for the LGA by Newton Europe identified significant variation in how revenue outturn budgets are reported, meaning like-for-like comparisons are not possible (confirming findings of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy in 2014).

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The report acknowledges the challenge in accessing mental health services for children in care, it would be helpful to expand this to all families receiving support from children’s social care. Recognising that mental ill health in any individual in a household will impact upon the whole family, we continue to advocate a co-ordinated whole family approach with departmental actions coordinated across government and progressed in a way that complements and supports locally-led approaches. It would also be helpful for the review to emphasise the importance of joined-up approaches to physical and mental health, including for children in care, through the new Integrated Care Systems.

Keeping children safe

We support the report’s assertion that kinship should be prioritised (where appropriate) and supported. It would be helpful to clarify what “good” looks like in relation to support for kinship carers and identify how this can be fully funded to ensure that no carer is disadvantaged as a result of coming forward to provide vital love and care for a child.

We agree that responses to teenagers facing harm outside the home must be improved and recognition of the disjointed approach by central government on this issue, which impacts on local responses, is welcome. Alongside consideration of appropriate safeguarding responses, we encourage the review team to focus on those issues that can make a teenager vulnerable to exploitation, including exclusion from school, and consider how these can be addressed.

This will also help to identify how to fill the “accountability gap” for teenagers. For example, we continue to call on the Government to implement the Timpson Review of Exclusions recommendation to “make schools responsible for the children they exclude and accountable for their educational outcomes”. Figures for 2018/19 (the last year not affected by school closures due to Covid-19) identified increasing rates of fixed term exclusions, and higher exclusion rates for young people on free school meals and with SEND. This raises questions about the level of inclusiveness within the school system and how we can ensure young people receive the support they need. (discussed further at 6.5)

​​​​​​​It is disappointing not to see reference to the vital support provided by youth workers in the report. Trusted relationships with adults who are not family members or teachers can make an enormous difference to children and young people, including those who are particularly vulnerable. Youth work and wider youth services are vital components of the early help offer but have suffered significant cuts over the last decade alongside other elements of early help.

​​​​​​​The review asks why some well-evidenced and value for money programmes are not always widely available. Councils have consistently highlighted the challenges they face when trying to invest in the programmes they know their communities need. These include:

​​​​​​​Overarching challenges to local government funding. As the report notes, council spending power has fallen significantly, and while councils have fought to protect and increase spending on children’s social care to keep children safe, increasing need has forced a shift in spending from preventative and early help support to spend on urgent child protection services. Councils consistently highlight their frustrations at having to cut positive services in order to balance budgets each year.

​​​​​​​Short-term funding which does not support long-term planning. This applies both to the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) which supports all council services, and specific grants such as Supporting Families (formerly Troubled Families) and the Adoption Support Fund. The LGA continues to call on the Government to commit to a three-year funding settlement to allow councils to effectively plan services to meet the needs of communities.

​​​​​​​The £1.7 billion (61 per cent) reduction in the Early Intervention Grant since 2010/11.

​​​​​​​Funding early help and early intervention programmes through ring-fenced funds with a bidding process. This requires significant time for professionals engaged in developing bids, imposes time-limits on programmes, and leads to postcode lotteries of support. It is difficult to recruit, develop and retain well-trained staff on short contracts, and this process can also favour those areas who are better placed to submit strong bids, further exacerbating differences between areas.

​​​​​​​Research for the LGA published in February 2020 identified 30 individual grants for children and families (not related to education) available between 2015-16 and 2018-19. 18 of these were worth less than £5 million. While we recognise the value of grant funding some services, this fragmented funding brings challenges. The research identified nearly 250 different grants across local government, with half worth less than £10 million nationally and a third awarded on a competitive basis. Bringing budgets together will support children’s services and councils to build services around the needs of their communities.

Children in care

We strongly support the review’s focus on relationships for children in care and care leavers. Work around kinship care, keeping in contact with family (including extended family) when in care, staying put, staying close and ongoing support for foster carers will all help to support the ambition of building and maintaining lifelong relationships.

We encourage consideration of flexible models of care in the next phase of the review. Current models offer limited opportunities to support families through significant crises, with binary options around being “in” or “out of” care. More flexible models could offer particular support for teenagers, providing important breathing space for young people and their families through times of conflict, including to break cycles of behaviour and implement new approaches by both parent(s) and child.

The report reflects our significant concerns around the placements “market” and we look forward to the outcomes of the Competition and Markets Authority market study to identify areas for change. We would also like to see the review consider whether the current regulatory system for placements is fit for purpose. We support the Association of Directors of Children’s Services view that a comprehensive review of the regulatory system is required, with a view to achieving a more fluid system which aims to meet the needs of children and young people.

It would also be helpful to achieve more clarity around the needs of children coming into care in order to help councils and providers to deliver the right types of accommodation. While the report notes issues such as the age of children in care and their likelihood of having an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), we do not have a detailed understanding across the country of, for example, the types of mental health needs that are more prevalent in young people entering care or the kinds of support required. If we can understand in particular the needs of those young people for whom suitable homes are most difficult to find, and maintain this understanding in the longer term, we can better meet the shortfall in placements and ensure young people get the support they deserve.

We welcome the review’s commitment to identifying better approaches to secure provision for children across health, justice and local authorities. We also recommend consideration of how we ensure the best possible support for children and young people who fall just below the threshold for secure provision but require specialist care. Given the small numbers of children nationally, it would be helpful to consider whether sub-regional, regional or national approaches might be more helpful for the most specialist provision.

We believe that residential care has a clear role to play in supporting children in care in the longer term. For some children, particularly older children, a traditional family home may not be the best option. However, it is clear that we do not currently have the right mix of all placement types, in the right locations, to meet children’s needs, while we know that more work needs to be done to support the development of children’s home staff.

We also draw attention to the findings of research for the LGA which noted that the perceived role of residential care as an “option of last resort” caused challenges in relation to ensuring that we have the right homes available. The research makes clear the importance of understanding a child or young person’s needs swiftly and ensuring the right placement is made from the start – whether that is in a children’s home or another form of care.

This review must link closely with the Government’s review of special educational needs and disability (SEND). We remain supportive of a reformed, sustainable system which puts families at its heart, gives children and young people with SEND support at the earliest opportunity and raises levels of mainstream inclusion. This includes children in care or in need, who are significantly more likely to receive SEND support than their peers.

​​​​​​​Councils continue to face major financial challenges in supporting children with SEND and we are pleased that the Department for Education has recognised this, with £1.5 billion in additional high needs funding allocated to councils for 2020-21 and 2021-22, and £780 million for 2022-23. However we know that continuing to provide additional funding to meet rising demand for support is unsustainable.

A top-slice of high needs block funding going to groups of local schools to allow them to commission additional SEND support is welcome, we believe that schools should take more financial responsibility for supporting children and young people with SEND and not just pass responsibility to councils. While we appreciate that in many instances Multi-Academy Trusts cut across council boundaries, for this proposal to be successful it is vital that the relevant groupings of schools take responsibility for the whole cohort and are not able to ‘select out’ children which might be high cost at admission stage.

We would like to explore the development of a more contractual relationship between councils and schools in the provision of high needs funding, focused on outcomes and holding all schools to account for the successful delivery of those outcomes. If high needs funding is to be delegated to groups of schools, councils will have to have levers to hold the school groupings to account both for improved outcomes for children and young people and which reduce the use in out-of-area and specialist provision.

​​​​​​​Councils, with their democratic mandate, are ideally placed to act as convenors of local SEND systems, bringing health, education and parents, families and children with SEND together to agree how support can best be delivered. Feedback from councils is that there are issues around the effective participation of health partners in SEND systems and it is vital that this is addressed as part of the SEND review. Strengthening the role of the Designated Medical/Clinical Officer to ensure health partners play a meaningful role is welcome, but we are keen to explore mechanisms by which CCGs/ICSs can be compelled to play an active part in SEND systems. There is a role for Ofsted/CQC local area SEND inspections in this space, but it would be very helpful for DHSC and NHSEI messaging to be clear that health has a vital role to play in supporting children and young people with SEND to achieve the best possible outcomes. This could have a significant impact on many children receiving support from children’s social care.

This chapter highlights challenges councils have repeatedly identified with the youth justice system, not only for children in care but all children in custody, many of whom will have had contact with children’s services. The LGA has called for local authorities, with their significant experience of running secure children’s homes, to be allowed to run secure schools.​​​​​​​​​​​​​

We have also called for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 14 in line with recommendations by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and recognising up-to-date evidence on brain development and the negative impact of early criminalisation. Such a change would prioritise a social work response, allowing social care to support the child towards improved long-term outcomes.

System factors

The case for change offers welcome recognition of the significant funding challenges facing children’s services, including the helpful acknowledgement that services will require both investment and reform; one will not be successful without the other.

However, this could have gone further to consider the wider implications of public and voluntary sector funding reductions over the last decade for children’s services. This includes but is not limited to:

​​​​​​​We would also have welcomed further consideration of the role of partners in supporting children and families throughout the case for change. While the review focuses on children’s social care, we cannot deliver the change we seek without a wide range of partners, nor without far greater coordination across government.

​​​​​​​Further focus on the role of schools is vital. Research carried out for the LGA found that the relationship between children’s social care departments and schools was vital in keeping children safe and well during the COVID-19 pandemic, with improvements in working practices and relationships as a result of the clear focus and shared goals of all involved. We are keen to see this progress maintained and built upon going forward, however this will require a clear steer from Government, with increasing demands on schools also requiring additional investment to build capacity.

​​​​​​​The current accountability regime for schools does not reward those schools that prioritise inclusion, in particular as a result of the impact of Progress 8, the focus of inspection and changes to the curriculum particularly in secondary schools. A more inclusive education environment can support all children, including those with social workers who are more likely to require SEND support or have EHCPs, to better achieve their potential.

​​​​​​​We also have concerns around the potential impact of the ongoing drive towards academisation of schools on children with social workers. For example, councils do not have the power to direct academies to admit children in care even where the school is considered best placed to meet the child’s needs, while some areas have anecdotally highlighted that some multi-academy trusts are reluctant to engage fully in local safeguarding arrangements.

​​​​​​​“Strengthened morale and support for social workers” was one of the actions in Bright Futures, our seven point plan to get the best for children, young people and families published in 2017. We remain convinced of the importance of this if we are to improve outcomes for all who come into contact with children’s social care. Despite their vital role keeping children safe and helping families to thrive, children’s social workers continue to face vilification in the media if things go wrong, and fail to receive the kind of public recognition that their partners in health, the police and education receive. Early coverage of the case for change, which suggested “a runaway train of child protection investigations” and pointed the finger at social workers, reinforced feelings that children’s social workers are undervalued and lacking the respect they deserve. We urge the review to carefully consider how we can elevate the status of children’s social workers, not only to ensure they feel supported and empowered to carry out their roles effectively, but to encourage others to join the profession.

​​​​​​​The latter is vital if we are to reduce turnover amongst children’s social workers and reduce caseloads, as well as to develop the workforce we need for all children. Programmes such as Return to Social Work or Social Work Together bring qualified staff back to work in for councils in the short term. In the longer term, we would welcome a coordinated plan by the Government to increase the number of qualified social workers in the labour market through investment in training, and increasing flexibility in the apprenticeship policy to develop a pipeline of professionals for local government. Not only would this help to address workforce challenges across children’s services, but these good quality jobs can help to meet the levelling up agenda.​​​​​​​