An urgent multibillion-pound overhaul of children’s social care in England is needed to transform the life chances of thousands of vulnerable young people and reform a system that is spiralling out of control, a government-commissioned review has concluded.
The author of the report, Josh MacAlister, said failure to tackle major problems in children’s services would lead to record numbers of youngsters entering care within a decade, at huge cost to families and the taxpayer.
“Change is now both morally urgent and financially unavoidable. We have a stark choice: keep pouring money into a faltering system or reform and invest to improve people’s lives and make the system sustainable for the future,” MacAlister said.
His root-and-branch review, which calls for a number of eye-catching reforms to children’s social care, comes after a spate of high-profile child protection tragedies, and amid rising concern over the impact on vulnerable families of the pandemic, rising poverty and the cost of living crisis.
The government said the MacAlister report was the “start of a journey” to change the culture of children’s services in England. “We are ready to meet the challenge set by this review and I will set out my plans for bold and ambitious change in the coming months,” said the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi.
Helen Hayes, the shadow minister for children, welcomed the report and said that after a decade of Conservative cuts to family support services and rising numbers of youngsters entering care, it highlighted the scale of transformation needed to improve children’s social care.
A separate independent national report is expected on Thursday on lessons learned from the deaths of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and one-year-old Star Hobsonkilled after months of abuse, and after safeguarders seemingly missed opportunities to intervene.
The care review berates the government for a “lack of national direction” over social care and urges ministers to commit to a five-year, £2.6bn programme to reform a system it says is under “extreme stress”. It says the system is often dysfunctional and struggles to provide optimal care amid soaring costs and a workforce recruitment crisis.
It argues that investing in intensive, community-based services to support families in crisis can reduce the costly demand for crisis intervention that has led to an explosion in the number of children being placed on the child protection register or taken into care over the past decade.
It calls for radical measures to boost the life chances of care leavers, calling the inequalities and stigma they face the “civil rights issue of our time”. Equalities law should be changed to protect people with care experience from discrimination, and jobs and university places created and reserved for them.
A windfall tax on the profits of private care providers is proposed to help fund reform of the “broken” commercial market for children’s residential care and fostering. Despite profits of £500m a year, private services are often of poor quality, it says. Councils should form regional co-ops to rebuild public provision and prevent profiteering.
Other key recommendations include:
- The creation of a highly trained cadre of child protection specialists tasked with responsibility for making “decisive and focused” decisions on whether to escalate interventions to protect individual children identified as at risk of harm.
- A raft of financial and legal support to help kinship carers – grandparents, aunts and uncles – to look after child relatives who would otherwise enter foster or residential care after being separated by the courts from their parents.
- Investment in the social care workforce to address high vacancy and turnover rates, and enable social workers to spend more time with working with children and families and less time on paperwork and bureaucracy.
The review calls for legislation to create new care standards aimed at ending the scandal of unregulated care, in which thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds are placed in potentially unsafe accommodation without supervision.
It criticises children’s services as too often rigid, remote, stuck in crisis mode and disconnected from the needs of families they support and the wider interests of the children they care for, “especially when it comes to considering children’s need for connection and love”.
A proposed new “family help” service would be based in schools and children’s centres and made up of social workers, mental health practitioners and domestic abuse workers, who would provide intensive support to about 500,000 children in need. It would lead to thousands fewer children entering care, the report says.
Without major reform, 100,000 children could be in care by 2032, up from 80,000 now, with costs rising by 50% to £15bn, it says.
The report says any attempts to reform children’s social care will not succeed without wider government action to tackle rising rates of child poverty, domestic violence and mental illness. It says children in deprived areas, where care needs are higher, should get a bigger share of funding.
The review says children’s social care should stay under local government control, and while it considered and rejected nationalising private children’s homes, it says in principle profit should play no part in children’s care provision.
The review was promised by the Conservative party in its 2019 general election manifesto, and launched by the former education secretary Gavin Williamson in January 2021.
It was advised by an “experts by experience” board made up of children in the care system, adult care leavers and carers. The board welcomed the report as a potential “pivotal moment in the history of children’s social care”.
The big five children’s charities – NSPC, Barnardo’s, National Children’s Bureau, The Children’s Society and Action for Children – welcomed the review, saying in a joint statement: “It provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a struggling system and create a step change in the way children and families are supported.”