Edward Timpson, Children’s Minister, speaks to social workers about the importance of their work and child protection reforms.
Thanks Ruth (Smith, Editor, Community Care). I’m very pleased to be here, for the first time, and to have the chance to meet and speak to so many of you working in this vitally important area.
I see that there’s already been a session on child sexual exploitation this morning and that you’ve voted to discuss adoption after I’ve spoken. Well-chosen topics, if I may say, that we agree are major priorities, underlining, as they do, the urgent need to transform the prospects of our most vulnerable children.
And I know, all too well, from years of living and working with such children what a crucial role you have to play in this – a role, that’s, arguably, one of the most crucial in our society.
I want to take this opportunity, with so many of you here, to say how extremely grateful I am for all your efforts. Because when it comes to keeping children safe from harm, the stakes really could not be higher.
We rely on you to make the kind of life-changing decisions, day in day out, in desperate situations that most of us could never face.
But despite this, we know that social work, frankly, doesn’t command anything like the public respect and recognition it deserves – which is hardly surprising when the profession usually only finds itself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
And that was highlighted all too painfully only last week with the conviction, after years of missed opportunities, of the gang from Oxford.
Like you, we’re determined to change this so you can get on with doing the job you came into the profession to do – providing hope and a brighter future for needy children and families, with real public confidence behind you.
But if we’re to make this a reality; to raise the status and quality of social work and really turn around troubled lives, we need to do much more to challenge and champion you as a profession.
By challenge, I mean, being honest with ourselves, and each other, about where we’re going wrong – and, indeed, where we’re going right - and acting on these insights.
And by support, providing greater leadership and backing for those working on the frontline. So social workers are driven to do what’s right – not just what they’re told.
That’s what our reforms to overhaul child protection, social work and the care system are all about.
Trusting you to exercise your professional judgement and drive self-improvement, freed up, in a system refocused on the needs of the child.
Now, I know that some of you in the room work in adult services. Though my focus is mainly on children and families, the reforms I’m talking about today will also be of significance to you.
I work closely with ministers and officials from the Department of Health – more closely than I ever imagined - and I know Glen Mason (DH Director) touched on some of our reforms yesterday.
And these reforms took a major step forward last week with Isabelle Trowler’s appointment to the new position of Chief Social Worker for Children and Families. I’d like to extend my warmest congratulations to Isabelle – it’s great to have someone with such an impressive track record on board being a standard bearer for social workers.
There was also the announcement about our support for Frontline, which aims to do for social work what Teach First has done for teaching.
The stunning response we’ve had, with Frontline receiving almost 500 inquiries less than a week after its launch, is a fantastic start for a project that shows great promise.
Challenges in social work and child protection
Now, these are hugely significant developments for the profession because the child protection system’s greatest asset is not the rules and regulations or the paperwork and the processes. It’s all of you - the people working in it.
Yet, far from trusting and supporting you, the system has - as Professor Eileen Munro’s review highlighted - undermined your professionalism through endless box-ticking and bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy that’s fuelled risk aversion, robbed you of time with families – and vice versa - and taken the focus further and further away from the needs of the child.
It should go without saying that these needs; for a child to be safe, to be fed, kept warm and clean, to be comforted and heard, must always come first.
Ahead of the rights of abusive parents who are unable or unwilling to change their ways.
Ahead of irrelevant and futile processes and work practices.
And ahead of adults wanting to escape criticism or challenge.
But it’s clear that that this hasn’t been happening anywhere near enough.
We know that, despite some areas of good and excellent work, there’s still far too much variation in child protection around the country.
That too many local authorities and other agencies are still failing to meet acceptable standards for safeguarding children – to look for and act on signs of abuse, to intervene early enough and remove children decisively in sometimes the most appalling cases.
Worse still, there’s not enough honesty when things go wrong. So lessons aren’t learned. And more children are condemned to suffer from the same mistakes over and over again.
These failings have been acknowledged by review after review – by Lord Laming’s landmark reports in 2003 and 2009, by the Social Work Taskforce and now by Professor Munro’s well-received review of child protection.
Need for reform
It’s clear that improvements are needed right the way through the system – from the first contact that a family has with a social worker through to social workers presenting cases in court.
I know this all too well from my own experience of growing up with over 80 foster children – 2 of whom we adopted - and from spending the best part of a decade as a family barrister, often representing children in care.
Many of the children who came into our home had been damaged by chaotic, troubled backgrounds. Something very familiar to all of you.
I’ve seen babies addicted to heroin go into spasms. And I’ve watched on as an abused and deeply angry little boy shattered every pane of glass in my dad’s prized greenhouse because he didn’t know how else to let his anger out.
But, over time, I saw that love, stability and routine helped them settle and thrive.
And it became increasingly clear to me that many could have been spared immense suffering and long-term damage if they’d got consistent and reliable help earlier – conclusions that were reinforced by my time as a barrister.
By the time a case landed on my desk, the damage had, all too often, already been done, and it was a matter of all of us trying to make the best of a bad job. It was apparent that cases were managed, all too often, for the convenience of adults rather than the interests of the child.
And we all have to take responsibility for that.
If we’re to seriously raise our game and do better at keeping children safe, it’s vital that we reverse this wrong-headed emphasis and put children’s needs at the heart of everything we do.
This means reducing the delays that so damage their life chances and promoting the stability they so desperately need.
And that means challenging everyone involved in a disadvantaged child’s life; teachers, foster carers, health professionals, councillors, judges and, yes, social workers, to have the same high aspirations in education, work and wellbeing for them as they have for their own children.
Key role of social workers in reforms to support vulnerable children
Our reforms; in child protection and social work, to speed up adoption and proceedings in the family courts, to improve fostering and strengthen special educational needs provision, in all areas affecting vulnerable children, aim to do just that.
As a profession, you have an absolutely critical part to play in all of this, so that these changes make a real and lasting difference.
And I know, from meeting many of you over the years, that you have a huge amount to offer.
Clearly demonstrated when I accompanied social workers on family visits in Halton, in the north west, in my neck of the woods, earlier this year.
One of the visits was to a family with four young children. The mother had learning difficulties and the father, mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. I was hugely impressed by the strong relationships and the meaningful communication the social worker had established with the family.
This meant that her direct and practical attempts to support the parents by, for example, attaching a checklist of small steps to follow on the fridge, really hit home, rather than just eliciting platitudes that change nothing.
I was also struck by the high morale and signs of strong leadership I saw when visiting the council offices. It was encouraging to hear about a case file audit system they’d introduced, that had initially been greeted with unease by social workers, but had now been embraced it as a useful tool to motivate staff and manage performance.
That’s just the kind of positive approach I’d like to see spread more widely – a commitment to self-improvement where professionals are not afraid to challenge one another.
And our drive to implement recommendations from Professor Munro’s review should go a long way towards this getting there.
Helping us move towards a system that’s much more focused on the child, in which there’s more emphasis on early help and on multi-agency working - where possible, before formal intervention is needed.
And in which we raise professional standards so that you, the system’s most valuable resource, are better equipped and supported to do your job.
Chief Social Worker and Principal Child and Family Social Workers
Fundamental to this support is strong leadership. Which is why we’ve taken forward the review’s recommendation to create the Chief Social Worker role.
Isabelle will bring - together with her counterpart representing adults - visible professional leadership for the first time at national level.
Many of you will be familiar with her work on Hackney’s highly commended ‘Reclaiming social work model’. I saw it for myself, a few years ago, when I met Isabelle on a visit to east London.
The commitment to innovation and improvement that I saw there left me in no doubt that Isabelle, with her wide-ranging frontline and senior management experience, will prove a powerful voice for the profession and in leading the debate on reform.
But leadership at a local level is also key. Which is why councils, again in response to the Munro review, are appointing Principal Child and Family Social Workers to lead on standards of practice and on local learning.
Our work to set up and support The College of Social Work and to initiate a strengthened Ofsted inspection framework is also part of this push to further professionalise social work and bring it in line with other professions such as teaching.
Frontline and Step up to Social Work
And teaching is a worthy comparison. The turnaround in the standing of the profession, in recent years, has been nothing short of remarkable. This is in, no small part, down to the brilliance of TeachFirst.
By getting talented, committed graduates into the most challenging classrooms, TeachFirst has helped improve the life chances of thousands of our most disadvantaged children - and, in the process, helped turn teaching into one of the top career choices.
The scheme’s recent third-place ranking in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers shows just how far it – and teaching, as a profession – has come.
We’re now on course to do the same for social work through Frontline - which is, in fact, the brainchild of a TeachFirst graduate, Josh MacAlister.
As we announced last week, Frontline is a new fast-track training programme that, like TeachFirst, will recruit top graduates into social work. It will run over 2 years and offer a specially-tailored curriculum and intensive in-work training. The pilot will begin this September, with an initial group of 100 graduates in training from 2014.
And as I said, the early signs are looking very positive. Alongside the flood of inquiries from potential applicants, Frontline has also already received 10 expressions of interest – and counting - from local authorities.
This interest very much builds on the success, so far, of Step up to Social Work, a similar fast-track training programme for career changers, that many of you will be familiar with.
The first 168 Step Up recruits qualified as social workers last year, with over 80% now working within the local authority where they were trained.
And I’m pleased to be able to announce a doubling of the number of available places to 329 in the next cohort, with half of all local authorities (76) taking part.
Improvements to education and training
With both of these schemes, we’re targeting those who can, not only work with children and families, but who have the analytical skills to make difficult decisions and make robust judgements about risk.
It’s vital that professional development for social workers is as good as it can be to hone these vital skills, so both new and existing recruits can do their job with ever greater confidence.
That’s why we’ve asked Sir Martin Narey to expand his role as the government’s adoption adviser and look at the quality of initial education and training for social workers. He’ll report to the Secretary of State and the Chief Social Worker later this year.
We’re also developing training modules on fostering and adoption for children’s social workers, supervising social workers, team managers and Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs).
And, in combatting child sexual exploitation and reforming residential care, we’re proposing to address the low level of qualifications among staff in children’s homes.
The recent case against the gang from Oxford has, once again, laid bare in harrowing detail how incredibly vulnerable young people in these homes are to sexual predators exploiting weaknesses in the system.
It’s absolutely essential that staff are as highly skilled and well-equipped as possible to face these challenges.
Which is why, this summer, we’ll be carrying out a comprehensive review of the training, qualifications and career pathways for new and existing staff in children’s homes, that will inform the development of a training and qualifications framework for those working in children’s homes.
And from the end of this year, we’ll strengthen the current rules; requiring existing staff to have completed minimum qualifications within a set time period.
But while this work to bolster skills and qualifications and offer stronger leadership is of the utmost importance, social workers clearly don’t work in isolation.
You need and want to be clear about your responsibilities in relation to other professionals and agencies and to be confident that all parts of the system are working towards a common goal – meeting the needs of the individual child.
Which is why I’m pleased that we’ve delivered on one of Professor Munro’s most important recommendations and revised the Working Together guidance.
Making clear the core legal requirements on all professionals working to keep children safe and, crucially, emphasising that safeguarding is the responsibility of all professionals who work with children.
Recent feedback from events held by my department to help disseminate learning from the trial authorities to other local authorities has been hugely positive, as has the response to the document itself.
Family justice reforms
We’re also speeding up proceedings in the family courts through the Children and Families Bill, so that, instead of decisions typically being dragged out for around a year, in future, there will be a 26-week time limit for the family courts to decide whether a child should be taken into care.
The courts will also have to make sure decision-making and timetables take into account the child’s needs and the impact on them of delays. And as the tri-borough project in London demonstrates, this is eminently achievable.
But while always striving to do our very best, we all know that we can’t completely eliminate risk. And that, with the best will in the world, there will be times when things go wrong.
Serious case reviews
When this happens, we need to confront, honestly and openly, the mistakes that were made. Serious case reviews (SCRs) are one of the most important vehicles for doing exactly that; for learning lessons, good and bad.
That’s why we’ve insisted on SCRs being made public.
Some local authorities, such as Leicester, North Somerset and Durham have responded really positively to our call, but, overall, the number being published remains disappointingly low.
We’re keen to see these numbers rise significantly. Which is why we’re establishing a new national panel of independent experts to scrutinise and advise on decisions by local safeguarding children’s boards not to initiate or publish SCRs.
But if all this work to learn lessons and improve child protection is to mean anything, it must translate into better outcomes for vulnerable children – not just while they’re in the care system, but when they’re leaving it.
A stable, supported transition to adulthood is crucial for these disadvantaged young people. We want to see many more stay in care until their 18th birthday, which is something the best local authorities are already doing. But there are still too many who have young people leaving care at 16 and 17, leading to poor outcomes.
So we’re changing the regulations to tackle this, meaning sign-off will be required at the highest level by Directors of Children’s Services (DCSs) for a young person to leave care before the age of 18. We hope this will see many more young people leaving care when they’re ready to, rather than when they have to.
We’re also putting £200,000 into work by the National Care Advisory Service to develop evidence-based models of delivery over the next 2 years to improve support and outcomes for young people leaving residential care.
There’s also good news in a number of other areas where we’ve taken action to help care leavers.
I wrote to all Directors of Children’s Services in October on precisely this issue and I’ve been encouraged by their positive response, with just under 100 local authorities agreeing to provide care leavers with Setting Up Home Allowance of at least £2,000 – up from just 32 local authorities before the letter was sent.
We’ve also opened over 33,000 junior ISA accounts, which children in care can access when they reach 18. And that’s happened in just 6 months.
And over 100 local authorities have now signed or are about to sign the Charter for Care Leavers and agreed to work with their local Children in Care Council on making the aspirations in it a reality.
We’re also driving improvements in local practice by giving the Care Leavers Foundation £80,000 to help them train care leavers as consultants advising 5 local authorities.
One of these care leaver consultants will, in fact, be employed in my own department, as part of Children in Care Division - emphasising our determination to make sure these young people have a real impact.
So, we’re making really good progress that I hope will see many more young people in care get the sort of support, as they become independent, that their peers take for granted.
It’s been 4 years now since Lord Laming urged us to “just get on with it” – to learn well-recognised lessons and make the changes we know are needed.
I think we can say with some confidence that we’re, at last, making good on this – and not before time.
Because there’s little doubt that the fight to keep children safe, in a technological landscape that’s rapidly changing and where we’re confronting emerging horrors like child sexual exploitation, continues to challenge and test us as a society like no other issue.
As I’ve said, your role in this could not be more central – as social workers, you are as much in the business of saving lives as any doctor, nurse, fire fighter or police officer. An unacknowledged emergency service that steps in when society looks the other way.
Something I know all too well from my own family and professional experience.
I want you to be held in the same high regard as those other frontline occupations, which is why are our reforms to challenge and champion you as a profession and to re-focus the system on children’s needs are so important.
I’m conscious that making changes to work practices and cultural assumptions is far from easy.
But I’m hopeful that Isabelle’s appointment and the launch of Frontline will make a big difference to how the profession is perceived – and, perhaps more importantly, how the profession feels about itself.
Because I know that you came into this job to do good, not to do admin. To intervene intelligently and with impact to the best of your ability, as the best social work teams are doing every day, up and down the country.
Like you, I want to see this ambition and excellence spread far and wide.
And I have no doubt that this is very much within our grasp if we come together - to challenge and support each other, to show leadership and to remind ourselves of our common purpose - which, after all, boils down to one simple question: ‘What would I do if this was my child?’
It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of this in our frustrations with the system. But, it’s only by keeping this thought uppermost in our minds, that we give ourselves the best chance – indeed, the only chance – of saving children from another Oxford, another Rochdale, another Baby P.
We must never forget that our most vulnerable children and families are depending on us in the most profound sense of the word. To make sure we do our very best for them as we would for own children and our own families. To never forget that we hold their lives in our hands.
They surely deserve nothing less.