The Joseph Rowtree Foundation estimates that by 2020 one in four families will be in relative poverty as a result of welfare reform. If we accept that poverty can be a causal factor of adverse childhood experiences then we can assume that this will have a huge impact on the health, social and economic well-being of a whole generation of children and young people. However, this increase in poverty also comes at a time when local authority services are being hit by budget cuts and it is becoming increasingly difficult for children’s social work to act preventively. When children are at risk of significant harm they should, of course, be removed but we can’t hide from the reality that outcomes for children in care are on average markedly worse than for those who are not. Take a look at the meta-analysis data I discussed in my post risk, resilience and adoption and you will see that a solely reactive approach is very short sighted. The real focus should therefore be on improving the quality and timeliness of the interventions so that we can prevent children from becoming at risk of significant harm in the first place.
So, what can be done if the current government remains committed to further cuts and austerity?
In April 2015 a report ‘Breaking The Lock’ was published, exploring the challenges faced by children’s services. The report argues there is a disconnect between Ofsted and local government and evidences a new model for children’s services that, they claim, is both financially sustainable and improves life chances for children. It proposes a new model that places the emphasis on prevention and early intervention. It also explains what this model could look like from an operational perspective, stressing the importance of integration and multi-agency working.
In reaching its recommendations the report highlights what it sees as four fundamental problems:
Firstly, the impact of the single word judgement ‘inadequate’ from Ofsted can have a catastrophic spiralling effect on a local authority, turning a poorly performing authority into a broken one. In March, Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told PSE “We believe this framework does not get to the heart of how well services are working, and, with a single worded judgement it tells a partial and excessively negative story, which runs the risk of weakening the very services it seeks to improve.”
Secondly, the ‘rise in family breakdown as a leading cause of children needing support’ is exposing fundamental weaknesses in the current model of children’s services and a lack of early intervention is allowing manageable problems to descend into acute crisis.
Thirdly, there is national shortage of social workers meaning that struggling councils are overly reliant on agency staff costing more money and leading to less consistency of support for vulnerable children. I would argue that it is actually a case of too few experienced social workers that is the problem, and agency workers are being used to fill these knowledge gaps on local authority teams. Findings from the social work reform board show how burnout rates are high meaning that local authorities are losing newly qualified social workers very quickly. Whilst it is great that Frontline has focussed on drawing high quality candidates into the profession, the government also needs to focus on retention. I suspect that their current plans to jail social workers who fail to prevent neglect, despite the necessary infrastructure to properly address it will only exacerbate the problem.
Finally, the report argued that children’s services and Ofsted need to collaboratively modernise to reflect the reality of the public sector’s financial climate and the growing complexity of needs that vulnerable families have.
These times of austerity will undoubtedly require local authorities to control resources more effectively and be more creative about using what resources are available through close liaison with multi-agency partners. There is also a clear economic logic for the region to come together to pool risks and share financial resources. The Greater Manchester devolution deal, for instance, will give the city region more devolved powers than anywhere else in England, London included. Anyone wanting to hear if devolution in Greater Manchester could address our multiple and worsening inequalities should look into attending this event at Manchester Business School on the 6 July 2015.
I'm a Qualified Children's Social Worker with a passion for safeguarding and family support in the UK.