Social work reform Contents



1.Children and families social workers are managing increasing caseloads. At the end of March 2015, there were 69,540 children in care, a figure higher than at any point since 1985.1 A recent study found that one in five children born in 2009–10, almost 150,000 children, were referred to children’s social care before their fifth birthday.2 The number of children who became the subject of a child protection plan rose from 44,300 in 2010 to 62,200 in 2015.3 The reasons for these increases are varied and complex. They potentially include demographic changes, greater numbers of children in specific need groups, improved identification of child sexual exploitation, and changes in practice which have led to referrers recognising need at an earlier stage. Against this backdrop of increasing demand, funding constraints have put local authority spending on children’s services under severe stress. In view of these pressures, it is critical to look at the role of children and families social work and what can be done to ensure the profession copes with ever-rising demand. Social workers have a crucial role in improving outcomes for children, young people and families, and it is in this context we examine the best ways to support and improve children and families social workers.

Our inquiry

2.In a speech in September 2015, the Prime Minister made it clear that improving the quality of children and families social workers and children’s services was a key reform priority for the Government, calling it a “big area of focus over the next 5 years.”4 We were prompted to launch an inquiry into social work reform by the lack of clarity on how the Government intended to achieve its aim. In November 2015 we wrote to the Department for Education asking it to set out:

3.We received the Department’s response in December 2015. It concentrated on how the Government would deliver three core aims. The first was improving the skills of capacity of the workforce, by introducing a new accreditation and assessment system, and expanding accelerated schemes into children and families social work. The second was creating quality working environments focused on efficiency and innovation, through funding from the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme and sharing best practice from high-performing local authorities. The third was streamlining governance and accountability by working with local authorities and others on new models for delivering children’s social care, such as independent trusts, and intervening earlier in local authorities with records of persistent failure.

4.We published the response alongside a call for written evidence on 12 January 2016, seeking comments on the content, focus, and breadth of the Government’s proposed reforms.5 We received 47 written submissions during our inquiry from a range of organisations and individuals, and took oral evidence from six witness panels, including from Edward Timpson MP, Minister of State for Children and Families, and Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families. We also held a private meeting with representatives from the social work sector.6 We are grateful to all witnesses for providing such high quality evidence, and to all of those who took the time to write to us. During this inquiry we benefited from the advice of Professor David Berridge OBE and Marion Davis CBE as our standing advisers on children’s services, and we are grateful for their assistance.7

The Government’s reform agenda

5.Since we launched our inquiry, the Government has begun to spell out in more detail the shape its reforms will take. The Government presented its approach as a “radical programme of reform” to transform the care that children receive.8 On 14 January 2016, the Department for Education published a policy paper called Children’s social care reform: a vision for change.9 A more detailed policy paper, entitled Putting children first: delivering our vision for excellent children’s social care, was published on 4 July 2016 following the conclusion of our inquiry.10

6.The Government announced the Children and Social Work Bill in the 2016 Queen’s Speech.11 Two of the stated purposes of the Bill are to enable better learning about effective approaches to child protection and children’s social care, and to enable the establishment of a new social work regulatory regime. Both these purposes relate to proposals in the Government’s reform strategy. We will address the Bill where appropriate in the Report.

7.We welcome the Government’s commitment to the important area of children and families social work, and its focus on strengthening social work practice and improving outcomes for children and young people. The proposed reforms have the potential to make some significant improvements to the sector. During our inquiry, however, we heard some concerns about particular aspects. This Report concentrates on these areas of concern.

Our Report

8.This Report is divided into six main parts:

3 Department for Education, Characteristics of children in need: 2014 to 2015, March 2016

5 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016)

6 See Annex 1 for further details.

7 Professor David Berridge, Professor of Child and Family Welfare, University of Bristol, declared interests as involved at the University of Bristol in educating and training qualifying and advanced social work, and other students, a member of the Bristol City Council Corporate Parenting Panel, and a recipient of research grants from DfE, research councils, trusts, voluntary organisations and others. Marion Davis declared interests as a Trustee of Children and Families across Borders (CFAB), a member of the Improvement Board for Children’s Services in Northamptonshire County Council, an external adviser to the Safeguarding Board of Northern Ireland in respect of a thematic review of Child Sexual Exploitation, and author of a Serious Case Review for Sutton local safeguarding children board.

8 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016) para 1

9 Department for Education, Children’s social care reform: a vision for change, DFE-00008–2016 (January 2016)

10 Department for Education, Putting children first: delivering our vision for excellent children’s social care, DFE-00158–2016 (July 2016)

11 Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] [Bill 1 (2016–17)]

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12 July 2016