Skip to main content
07 June 2022

Blog: Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

In this blog, PRT Senior Associate John Drew reflects on the findings of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, published last month.

A social worker in Lancashire by origins, John spent 10 years as Director of Social Services and Children’s Services in Redbridge before being Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board between 2009 and 2013. As well as his work with PRT John now works as a social justice advisor and advocate.

Josh MacAlister has achieved an impressive number of things in his life so far. A former secondary school teacher and graduate of the ‘Teach First’ scheme he learnt early that all was not well with children’s social care. In 2013 he set up ‘Frontline’, crudely a ‘Teach First’ for would-be social workers. By 2025 more than 4,000 social workers will have passed through ‘Front Line’, without any doubt improving the quality of social care throughout the country.

In January 2021 Josh was unveiled as the Independent Chair of the Government’s ‘Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’, thereby honouring a commitment from the Conservative Party’s 2019 General Election manifesto. Three weeks ago, Josh published his review’s final report. At nearly 250 pages and containing over 70 recommendations this is no lightweight or superficial tome as some commentators feared it would be, seeing Josh as a potential Government ‘yes man’.

I must confess I read the report expecting to be at best disappointed, and at worst angered, fearing a simplistic account of a system that I have given all 50 years of my working life trying to improve. I knew that Josh had recommended a mouth-watering £2.8 billion investment in social care over 5 years, a figure so large that it seemed highly improbable to be going anywhere.

And indeed, that latter judgement may yet prove to be right. But what Josh has done is to lay down a very clear challenge to this and future Government of the need for a radical reboot of a system that we all know is in desperate need of a rethink. One in four adults in prison have been in care as a child. Nothing much more to be said!

As we saw with the response to Charlie Taylor’s review of youth justice, these reports can be savaged by the forces of the status quo.

Some of Josh’s recommendations are naïve, for example his idea that re-engineering social work into ‘Family Help’ and ‘Child Protection’ strands will somehow miraculously alter the way in which social work is seen by children and families. And in other parts of the report, he has glossed over the impact of structural issues of racism and child poverty in a way that makes the challenges seem much easier than they actually are.

But there is also much to be delighted about in the report and blueprints for how to improve the experience of children abound. Proposals to unlock the potential of family networks, alongside the suggested “five missions” for care experienced people feel fresh and vital. If enough of these are taken forward by the Government (and if a good chunk of Josh’s £ 2.8 billion is forthcoming too) there is reason to hope for a MacAlister informed future.

At the Prison Reform Trust, we have some particular interest in the reform agenda. Josh has missed the ways that the care system can criminalise children in care, a disappointing omission. But his proposal for reforming the commissioning of regional services for residential care by creating Regional Care Cooperatives is most certainly worth a second look, despite the chirruping of those with an interest in the status quo. Such cooperatives are probably our best chance to build the new small custodial establishments that we believe should replace the failing Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres. And yes, Josh agrees with us that YOIs and STCs are not fit for purpose and should be phased out in 10 years, although he doesn’t cost this proposal.

If this still appears to be a cautious thumbs up it is only because everything now depends on how the Government responds. As we saw with the response to Charlie Taylor’s review of youth justice, these reports can be savaged by the forces of the status quo. But the rhetoric from the Government, about this being “a once in a generation opportunity to reset children’s social care”, is there for all to see. We will be watching Whitehall very carefully.

John Drew
Senior Associate