Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)


12 MAY 2008

  Q220  Mr Chaytor: What specifically prevents the existing arrangements with the local authority as a government provider from ensuring that continuity?

  Professor Le Grand: That is a good question, and the basis of one of the many discussions that we have had. Why, in 40 years of local authority social services, have we not seen that development, or why have we seen trends moving in the other direction, towards greater managerialism, and further away from the building of relationships? There was quite a lot of controversy within the group, as well as from the people that we have heard about, as to whether that was due to the innate nature of a large, bureaucratic organisation or whether it was due to central government imposing requirements on local authorities to improve practice, which meant that central government had to impose a degree of managerialism. That is why we felt that we could not decide the issue a priori and why we have gone for pilots. We wanted to see whether social work practices would be able to operate more as free agents, or whether they would be subject to the same pressures as local authorities.

  Q221  Mr Chaytor: But the opening chapter of the executive summary to the paper poses the question of whether some of the problems that you have identified could not be dealt with by adopting good practice pioneered by leading local authorities. Then you give no answer as to why extending existing good practices is not a solution to the problems.

  Professor Le Grand: Well, because we do not know. As we know, in every public service, good practice is going on in one or two places, but it is never adopted more widely. Why is it not adopted more widely? I would argue that it relates to the whole competition and choice argument. On the whole, the incentives are not there to adopt good practice. There are some top-down incentives, and internalised incentives—the kind of internalised incentives and pressures that a social work practice that was determined to do a good job and to keep its livelihood would face. In some ways, large monopolistic organisations are not the best way to spread good practice. The question that must be put to those who believe that such work can be done by local authorities is why they have not done it already.

  Q222  Mr Chaytor: I come back to the question of innovation and variety. You are saying that you expect social work practices to deliver greater continuity to the individual child, but that you also expect greater innovation and variety in the ways in which they deliver the service. At what point does that diversity of practice and method lead to what people tend to call the postcode lottery? At what point does fragmentation of the system occur, in terms of the difficulty of dealing with children who move around the system from one local authority area to another?

  Professor Le Grand: It is always a problem, in the sense of the decentralisation issue versus the necessity for a national standard. One person's postcode lottery is another person's decentralisation of power. Yes, I think that there would be more variation under the social work practice idea—as I said, for me, that is probably one of its virtues—but there would still be checks and balances within the system. There would still be the IRO—the Independent Reviewing Officer—who is appointed by the local authority. The local authority would set the contract with the social work practice. Those contracts—we have some draft contracts; there is one in the report, actually—would take account of Every Child Matters and its outcome requirements. As I have said, one of the exciting things about this whole development is the focus on outcomes and the idea that we could start contracting for outcomes. I think that that will ensure the right degree in maintaining both national consistency and accountability, which is also implicit in what you are saying.

  Q223  Mr Chaytor: The pilots are due to start this year and the planned implementation in 2009-10?

  Professor Le Grand: That will depend on the Bill receiving Royal Assent.

  Q224  Mr Chaytor: Yes, but what about depending on the outcome of the pilots? Is it not rather a short period in which to evaluate their success or otherwise?

  Professor Le Grand: The pilots will run for two years. I hope that they will start in 2009, and they will run until 2011. One of the problems in that whole area, of course, is that most of the outcomes that we want to achieve are many years in the future. Obviously, we look to the educational attainment of looked-after children; we want to know whether they will go to university. However, those things are so far in advance that no conceivable piloting process could test them. We felt that two years was probably an acceptable compromise, and that we would be able to see something about continuity and something about stability. Given the substantial degree of discontinuities and instability in the system at the moment, we will be able to see whether it will make some difference. Part of the process of evaluating outcomes for the children themselves will involve hearing their own views about it, so we will be able to pick up on those. Your point is perfectly valid—a lot of those things will take a very long time to appear—but we felt that two years was probably an acceptable compromise in order to get some answers to most of the difficult questions that we try to grapple with.

  Q225  Annette Brooke: Could I pick up on a point about Every Child Matters and integrated services? I have a slight problem with comparing a GP practice with the possible social work practice. I do not think that GPs are fully engaged—not all of them—with Every Child Matters and with integrated services. Is there not a danger that disintegration will be a backwards step away from all the work that is slowly taking place to integrate services?

  Professor Le Grand: There is possibly a danger, and you are probably right to draw attention to that danger. Again, that is one of the things that we mention. We want to look at the impact on the whole system of the social work practice. Part of the evaluation of the pilots will involve trying to get some assessment of what happens to the rest of the system as a result of the piloting process. I am not highly convinced that it will be an enormous problem, although I am willing to see the results of the evaluation, partly because of the idea that the social work practice would, in some sense, act as the lead professional on behalf of the child and would try to bring these services together—it would be integrating and co-ordinating and would be close to the child. I am not highly convinced that it will be an enormous problem, although I am willing to see the results of the evaluation, partly because of the idea that the social work practice would, in some sense, act as the lead professional on behalf of the child and would try to bring these services together—it would be integrating and co-ordinating and would be close to the child. It would try to work towards the integration taking place at the child's level, which is probably where it ought to take place.

  Q226  Annette Brooke: Will these practices be able to offer a 24-hour service? We have heard from various groups that that is desirable from the young person's point of view because, like in all families, the problems do not always crop up in working hours. Is this a real add-on for the social work practice?

  Professor Le Grand: I have heard that criticism too. We are talking about six to 10 social workers, and I think it is perfectly possible for them so provide a 24-hour service with one person on duty. My wife was a member of an intake team a while ago that had about the same number. She was on duty for a night every two or three weeks. In that instance, they were dealing not just with looked-after children, but a whole range of social services—it was in the pre-split days. I would have thought it was perfectly feasible for a six to 10 group of professional social workers to provide a 24-hour service.

  Q227  Annette Brooke: I suppose that leads to the question of whether you are going to get the one-to-one relationship that the young people want. That is perhaps asking the impossible, but it is still something that obviously happens in mainstream families: there is 24-hour contact with the same parent or carer.

  Professor Le Grand: Yes, but that would be true of any social work. Unless we have a single social worker for a single child in a local authority or anywhere over 24 hours, there will be some discontinuity in that respect. An important point that tends to sometimes get confused in our discussions is that the person providing the day by day care—the foster carer—is not, of course, the social worker. The important thing is that the social worker is there day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year and that they develop an affection for the child, get to know the child, and become part of the child's life. That is what we meant by that kind of continuity element—not perhaps continuity in the sense of if there were an emergency in the middle of night.

  Q228  Annette Brooke: I think some of the young people—someone to whom we had spoken—had perceived it in that way. I take it that the role of the corporate parent will remain lodged with the local authority, so can I ask Steve whether there are potential conflicts between the social work practice and the role of the corporate parent? How will they come together?

  Steve Titcombe: I would have thought that the contract arrangements to which Julian referred would be at the heart of setting out clear standards and expectations of the social care practice. That organisation would be required to provide evidence and information to explain its performance. The other mechanisms that the corporate parent and elected members locally would want to use are the mechanisms that are in place, through which they have direct contact with children in care and officers. The corporate parent mechanisms could work pretty well in terms of social care practice. I do not think there is a problem there.

  Q229  Annette Brooke: Finally, we have talked a lot about workforce development and obviously there are different pathways for career development within a local authority. What career development would there be for social workers to encourage them to stay with their practices and to give that continuity?

  Professor Le Grand: By moving from junior partner to senior partner. It would be a bit like some of the processes that occur in relation to GPs. In a way, that is part of the point, and that is exactly what my colleagues were saying. Many of the social workers told us that they did not want to leave the front line, but that the only way in which they could move on to a better job, pay and working conditions was to move into the managerial world or outside social work altogether. In a way, part of the point was that that would be a more attractive career than is currently offered, because it would preserve a substantial degree of personal responsibility with a front-line position.

  Annette Brooke: We will have to see the pilots, I think.

  Q230  Paul Holmes: Does that not imply that there would be considerable extra resources for those teams? If you are to have a good pay structure within a team of eight or 10, which keeps people for many years in the same group to provide continuity, it would have to be a much better pay structure than is available within social services for normal social workers.

  Professor Le Grand: That is right. More generally, the arrangements would be professional partnerships, so the reward structure for the social workers would include pay and the surpluses that are generated by professional partnerships, just as partnerships work more generally. We think that there would be considerable savings from losing a lot of the managerial overhang within local authorities—you would not have that hierarchy. I do not think that you would require more resources for doing an equivalent job for an equivalent number of children.

  Chairman: I want to look at other remodelling projects.

  Q231  Lynda Waltho: On the other remodelling projects, Care Matters contained a proposal for remodelling social work pilots, one of which is in your authority, Steve. What innovations will make the biggest difference to social workers' ability to plan and provide care for looked-after children? That is open to anybody to answer. I would like to speak to Steve later about specific issues in his authority, but what innovations will make a difference?

  Chairman: Is that directed at Steve?

  Lynda Waltho: I am sure that Steve is raring to go.

  Steve Titcombe: First, we have recognised there is a problem for children placed in our Children's Homes, who want to see more of their social worker. Our homes are doing a really good job. Children who are well placed and getting on well tend to go down the attention priority list, so social workers give less attention to children and young people in our children's homes. Youngsters have said that there is a very good service from our residential care workers. Part of our pilot is to have social workers work with children in children's homes. We think that that will have big pluses for youngsters' care planning: it will involve the youngsters in their care plan, ensure that it is up to date and alive and well, and also help them to see a way forward more speedily than happens at the moment. There is still a reliance on social workers that I think is sometimes not helpful—perhaps other members of the workforce should do some of the jobs that social workers do. We expect that youngsters' plans will be activated more clearly and rigorously. They may well, for example, re-establish contact with home more quickly than otherwise, or get access to services in ways that have not happened before. The second part of the project involves supporting children out of care using solution-focused therapy to promote the resilience and strength within extended families. It supports children more effectively at home within the extended family rather than the birth family. We hope that those two innovations will make a real difference.

  Q232  Lynda Waltho: On some of the other pilots, and to address the concerns of young people—I have spoken to many young people in Dudley, which is my local authority—the idea of 24/7 access comes at the top of everybody's list as far as I can see. There is also the idea of introducing an element of choice of social worker, but that is quite difficult because it is a who-is-your-favourite-teacher type question. Also, there is a feeling among young people that their social worker will engage with them and agree on a way forward, but that that gets frustrated further up the managerial line. Do you think we will be able to address some of those issues, which young people always bring up, with the remodelling?

  Jane Haywood: Some of that will be addressed. Part of the reason for setting up the pilots was to listen to what children and young people said they wanted from their social workers. Children and young people influenced the selection of the pilots and they will assess whether they have been successful in trying to respond to that concern. An issue that we may get wrapped up in during our discussion in the next hour is why it is always the social worker who has to do all that work. If the residential worker or foster carer were skilled and properly trained, access to a social worker on a 24-hour basis would not necessarily be required because there would be other people close by. What we are hoping to do with the pilots is think more imaginatively about how the social worker works with other professionals so that we can use social workers for what they are uniquely skilled at, rather than having them try to do a range of jobs. Some of the questions are about how social workers work in a multi-agency team or link into a children's centre. In Derbyshire, in an attempt to get into some of the rural areas, there is a kind of flying social worker service.

  Q233  Chairman: Where is that?

  Jane Haywood: In Derbyshire. They are trying to get into the rural areas. A lot of the work involves trying to pick up problems before they become huge, and doing early intervention.

  Celia Atherton: There are some issues around the evaluation of the remodelling pilots and the social work practices pilots. If there were a common evaluation method, we would really be able to see something interesting about what happened in the pilots and in local authorities. Julian knows that I am rather sceptical about the social work practices pilots, but we are going to have them. I hope that we really mine them for good-quality information. I do not think that we will get much information about children's outcomes, or the five outcomes. I do not believe for a minute that we can get that in two years. There will be lots of information about what it takes to set these things up, but, having said that, lots of other information will apply across both pilots. What skills do people use? The flip-side of the postcode lottery should be personalisation—not what is available, but whether people get the things that will really make a difference to them. How much personalisation is there? How much sharing of expertise is there? How much integrated working is done in both pilots? Will we develop pilots and social work practices that do a great job but exist in a little castle all by themselves, or will they add value to the sector? Will the remodelling social work pilots add value within the local authority and much more broadly? I think you can evaluate that, and you can get some really good learning for work beyond the pilots.

  Jane Haywood: That is a really good point. We have a comprehensive evaluation process in place for our remodelling pilots. My guess is that we have not made a strong enough link with the evaluation of the social work practices pilots. I will take that away and look at whether we can make it work. Both are just starting, so there is no reason why we cannot make some links between them.

  Professor Le Grand: So will I. I will pass that on to the group that is involved in that work. That is a very good strategy.

  Q234  Chairman: On the back of that, we are very impressed by the fact that there are pilots—we are always interested in basing policy on evidence and we pursue the Government on that all the time—but the children whom we represent cannot wait for two years. There was mention of 2009 and 2011. That is all very well, but I was depressed, Julian, when you said that you are pessimistic about learning from good practice in good local authorities. Is there no hope of improving practice for two or three years? Can we not get on and do something now to tweak, push or oil the system? Yes, let us wait for Julian's wonderful pilots to come through and learn from them, but can we not be doing something now?

  Professor Le Grand: People are terrified that we are going to rush in with another dramatic organisational change and make it universal. It is interesting to hear you say that, because everyone has been giving precisely the opposite messages: "For God's sake, leave things alone", "Let's have some stability", "If you're going to try these things, try them as pilots", "Don't disturb the system too much, until we know whether these things work."

  Jane Haywood: Actually, I think that a lot of work is under way already to start to tackle some of the problems—for example, Every Child Matters, which kicked off some time ago, and the work to embed the common assessment framework and multi-agency teams. We have a programme of work to improve what happens to newly qualified social workers—that will happen this year, with newly qualified social workers receiving extra support. I always say that whatever the problem, the workforce are the solution. We can implement remodelling pilots and test them in practice, but unless we focus on the skills and development of the workforce, no kind of structural change will have any impact.

  Q235  Chairman: It will not work if it is not well managed. We have been told that clients get upset if there is not continuity of contact—whether in foster care or regularly seeing the same social worker, rather than a fantastic churn. Surely it is not complex to do something about that quite soon.

  Jane Haywood: If you look across the country, you will see local authorities actively trying to address those issues. I am convinced that the newly qualified social worker support will start to address them, and certainly start to reduce the loss of social workers in the first year that they come in.

  Q236  Chairman: Will local authorities, or whoever is involved in supplying the social care system, listen more attentively to the evidence that young people in care want continuity? What they want is not complex.

  Jane Haywood: I think that directors of children's services have heard that message very clearly and are trying to resolve the issue.

  Q237  Chairman: You come from near my area, do you not?

  Jane Haywood: I am from Leeds, originally.

  Q238  Chairman: Did you not do something in Kirklees?

  Jane Haywood: Yes.

  Q239  Chairman: I went to a children's centre recently. I was told that social workers there receive 10 cases and then do not take any more, but stack. That suggests that they are not listening very much. Did you know that all those children are stacked—flying around waiting for a social worker?

  Jane Haywood: Yes, absolutely.

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