Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
The last time I spoke at this conference, in 2010, I set out some of the Government’s plans for improving child protection, and helping to strengthen the confidence of the social work profession. So it is a great pleasure to come back this year and take a moment to consider the progress we have made.
But before I start talking about what we are doing, I’d like to step back and offer a few words of appreciation. One thing that certainly does not change from year to year is the demands we make upon social workers. You operate in conditions most people know nothing about, and engage with those often in most desperate need. On a day-to-day basis you are expected to negotiate conflicting demands and situations of great complexity, and to make the most far-reaching of decisions. I often refer to it as the judgment of Solomon that you are making on a day to day basis.
So I am grateful for the opportunity this conference gives me to reiterate my gratitude to this profession, and my admiration for the vital work that social workers do.
Ever since the No More Blame Game report back in 2007 I have always sought to portray social workers as the fourth emergency service. You are part of the solution in child safeguarding, quite contrary to the lazy press caricatures. This is as important now as it ever was.
The power is in your hands
But I know that simply offering words of encouragement is not enough. What we have tried to do during our time in government is to demonstrate our commitment to social work by deeds, not words. Through a comprehensive package of practical reforms we are making sure you have the powers and the support that you need to work to the best of your abilities.
I look forward to hearing your views on our progress during the question and answer session. But first let me set out what I believe we have done to empower social workers, to strip back disempowering bureaucracy and put you in the best possible position to help the children and families who need you most.
I am aware that some of you in this room work in adult services. Though clearly my focus is on children and families, these reforms will also be of significance to you. I work very closely with Paul Burstow in the Department of Health and I understand that he will be addressing you tomorrow.
I will be talking today about some of the reforms we have introduced as a result of Professor Eileen Munro’s review of child protection; the imminent appointment of the new chief social worker; and our reforms to care, fostering and adoption. I will also touch on the work of the Social Work Reform Board.
But I would also like to look to the future, and to issue something of a cri de coeur. Once we have these new mechanisms in place, it will be over to you, in the social work profession, to take up the challenge; to pick up the baton of reform and run with it.
We are doing everything we can as a government to get child protection right and to strengthen public confidence in the work that you do. But we also need you to be strong and confident, to focus on developing your own professional abilities, and to be ready to innovate.
If we are to ask the public to trust social workers, social workers must first absolutely believe in themselves. These really are radical changes aimed at putting the power of decision-making fairly and squarely back in your hands. You need to believe it is going to happen, and be ready and able to take up that new challenge.
The landscape post-Munro
As many of you will know, the widely welcomed review conducted by Professor Eileen Munro last year has laid the groundwork for a new approach to child protection.
Professor Munro found that the system had become overwhelmed by bureaucracy and box-ticking. She found that social workers were spending too much time on administration, and not enough with families. Endless procedures had been imposed on professionals to minimise risk, as if we could wish danger and insecurity away by ticking the right boxes.
As a result, however, the professionalism and judgment of front-line staff had been undermined.
The answer Professor Munro proposed was simple. We needed to get back to basics. We needed to allow social workers to spend more time with children and families, getting to know them and responding to their particular circumstances and needs.
We are beginning to see this change of emphasis becoming reality. We are seeing greater flexibility, with eight local authorities testing new approaches to assessment over the past year. They have had the freedom to set their own local frameworks, and replace rigid timescales with professional judgments based on the needs of each child.
The feedback from these pilots has been very encouraging. Social workers are telling us that greater flexibility leads to more quality time with children and families, and better assessments, particularly for families with the most complex needs. Many also feel an enhanced sense of ownership over their work, and have been able to exercise greater professionalism.
Local authorities are telling us that with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. They have been reporting back to us about the need to monitor cases robustly to prevent drift.
We are seeing a greater practical emphasis on multi-agency working, and a drive towards transparency, which is essential if we wish to improve services and strengthen public confidence in the work that you do. We can only learn from mistakes if we understand how and why they happened - hence our policy on publishing serious case reviews. We are also looking at how we can improve SCRs, making them into more valuable tools for learning lessons, and ensuring that their findings are seen and widely disseminated.
Importantly, we have in recent weeks advertised to fill the new post of chief social worker. This is a great opportunity for the whole social work profession. The chief social worker, like the chief medical officer, will help to bring balance and authority to the national debate on how social workers do their jobs, and how all of us improve confidence in child safeguarding.
He or she will be a strong, confident voice for the profession, speaking up on behalf of your interests, influencing the tone of the debate, and, yes, challenging the government where necessary.
We are expecting to have a Chief Social Worker in post this autumn at the latest and I think we can all look forward to seeing where the new incumbent takes this role.
Another very significant post-Munro development is happening on the ground. We are seeing more and more local areas taking responsibility for their own services, taking the opportunity to innovate and find solutions to meet their particular needs. We are moving away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, where everything is geared towards meeting central government targets.
In many areas social services have appointed, or are in the process of appointing, a ‘principal social worker’, following the Munro recommendations. But all areas are adapting this model to their particular needs.
For example, in Cornwall, which received a critical Ofsted report in 2009, the appointment of a principal social worker is part of a much more proactive, approach to learning and professional development in the county.
New consultant social worker posts have been created, as well as principal social workers for every team in the county. These more senior roles will be geared towards mentoring and supporting colleagues. Promotion will depend on being able to demonstrate continuous professional development.
Stoke on Trent has taken quite a different approach, by asking its social workers to participate in the process of appointing the role. Social workers across the authority will vote for a candidate from a selected list to take the role on for a set period and on a secondment.
In Cambridgeshire, two-thirds of the county’s front-line social workers had under two years’ experience when an analysis was undertaken in 2010, and many said they were feeling vulnerable given the risk profile and complexity of their caseloads.
The service has been able to respond to this by establishing a number of small teams of senior professionals, each containing consultant social workers and a specialist clinician, to support less experienced colleagues. Many social workers are also being trained in systemic family therapy.
These kinds of developments show real progress. We are seeing innovation; local solutions to local problems; and an emphasis on learning, quality, child-centred practice and professional development.
This is Munro in action - there is much more to come.
Social Work Reform Board
The Social Work Reform Board has also continued to work tirelessly over the past two years to implement long term changes and improvements, for which I offer great thanks to Dame Moira Gibb and her colleagues.
In particular, the new College of Social Work (at last) is key to making all of the reforms work and I was pleased to be invited to speak at their launch event in January. I reiterate my support for their commitment to putting social workers at the heart of decisions about the future of the profession and giving social work the professional leadership voice and public voice it deserves.
I know that Moira and her colleagues are working on a report shortly to continue the momentum of the long term reform programme which now falls to the sector to deliver
Adoption and fostering
The other, related, area which has been a priority for us as a Government is fostering and adoption. I know that Martin Narey is going to speak to you later this morning about adoption in particular, so I won’t go into too much detail.
However, I would just emphasise that our Action Plan for Adoption, which was published in March, focuses on meeting the needs of children, and in particular on reducing needless bureaucracy and damaging delays. This applies to social work but also in the judicial processes, which we have looked at in the Family Law Review.
Just as Munro focused on the child’s journey, we need to focus on the needs and outcomes of those children in the care system and at every stage challenge whether our actions are improving their lot.
The evidence shows overwhelmingly that delays and the resulting instability have a negative impact on the life chances of children. It is imperative that stable homes are found within a reasonable time, and we are determined, as a government, to do all we can to speed up and streamline the adoption process.
As part of this we are working to recruit a greater number and wider range of prospective adopters. We intend to say more about this, and about how reforms to the adoption process fit with our ambitions for children in care services more generally, in a further publication this summer.
But although in recent weeks adoption has had a lot of publicity, there is no hierarchy in our approach to care. We know that adoption is only ever going to be an option for a small proportion of the 65,000 children in the care system. So we are focusing a great deal of energy in improving the deal for children in residential care, and in foster care, and for foster carers too. It must always be a case of what is the right form of permanence for that particular child.
Indeed, we are currently in the midst of Foster Care Fortnight, which the Government is supporting. A wide range of children need foster care, so we need a wide range of people to care for them. We are particularly keen to attract people into fostering who can care for teenagers, sibling groups and disabled children. That is why the Government will shortly be announcing a raft of new measures to recruit more foster carers and to reduce the pressures that make foster carers leave.
Foster carers do an incredible job and we need more to come forward. They are in an unrivalled position to build strong, stable relationships and they can help a child address difficulties resulting from their experiences before entering care and help turn their lives around. I want foster carers to be celebrated and supported to provide excellent care.
I also want to ensure that they are empowered and supported to make the kinds of everyday decisions about their foster children that parents would make about their own children. I do not want to keep hearing that looked after children have missed out on experiences that other children take for granted - be that permission to attend a party or sleepover, or something as simple as having a haircut - because social workers have not been available to make these day-to-day decisions.
I want foster carers, who know the strengths and needs of the child best, to be respected as a core part of the team around the child, alongside social workers, health professionals and schools. Foster carers’ views and ideas should be sought, valued and respected. That is why I launched the Foster Carer’s Charter, to give foster carers the recognition they deserve.
I am delighted that so far 84 local authorities have signed up to the charter with a further 35 in the process of signing up to it. The challenge is for all local authorities to sign up and implement the Charter so that foster carers receive the support, training and recognition that they need.
Of central importance is ensuring that the courts play their part in speeding up care proceedings, and in the Queens Speech we announced that we would be taking forward provisions through the Children’s and Families Bill to streamline court processes.
I also want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and commend the work that family and friend carers do, whether as informal carers, foster carers, special guardians or adopters. We know that living with relatives can be the best option for many children but it is not without its challenges. I urge all local authorities to publish as soon as possible their policies which set out the practical and financial support they offer to family and friends carers whatever the legal status of the child.
If a child is not able to stay with his or her birth parents, despite the best endeavours of professionals like you, then kinship carers can often - more often than they currently do - be an appropriate, loving and ready-made alternative. This is not in competition with adoption or other forms of permanence but again it must be horses for courses.
This is a challenging, but also an exciting time, in which I believe much of the hard work that has been done on reform to social work is coming to fruition. We are getting back to some important principles: that the needs of children should always come before the needs of bureaucracy; that your time should be spent with the children and families who need you most; that your professionalism should be respected and you should be valued for the incredibly difficult and important work that you do.
This leads me neatly on to the Social Worker of the Year Awards, which the organisers at Community Care have asked me to mention. I welcome any opportunity to raise the profile of fantastic social workers, and get this sector the recognition it sorely deserves. So I would urge you all to make your nominations - which are open until the 31 August. I believe that the necessary forms can be picked up here at the Business Design Centre.
Glittering prizes and glory aside, let us not pretend that there will not be challenges ahead. Transforming and improving services for the most vulnerable, while coping with harsh financial times will be no easy feat. We have taken care to protect safeguarding budgets.
However, I believe that with the fresh vision and a clear set of priorities we now have in place we can do it, if we work together. The biggest cost is, of course, the cost of failure.
And that is my central message to you today. I hope we are doing all we can in difficult times as a Government to support you. I now look forward to seeing what you, the people who are really best placed to put change into action, will do with it.