The current ministerial announcement of a “bold and wide-ranging” review of children’s social care in England was well timed, perhaps even tardy. Few would deny change is needed: after a decade of austerity the system is at breaking level, and in elements chaotic, whereas the life possibilities of the rising cohort of youngsters taken into care stay stubbornly dismal. But will the evaluation be as complete because it suggests?
The schooling secretary, Gavin Williamson, has promised an inquiry of the root-and-branch variety: every little thing might be examined, from early years assist to youngster safety, fostering and kinship care and care houses. It might be unbiased, will take heed to youngsters and care leavers, and its suggestions will feed into “ambitious and deliverable” reforms tackling thorny points akin to lowering the variety of youngsters getting into care.
These are urgent points. In 2011 there have been 65,520 looked-after children in England; that had risen to more than 80,000 by the tip of March 2020. The variety of youngsters on youngster safety plans has elevated by more than half over the previous decade. Cases have turn into more complicated and severe – there have been massive will increase in numbers of youngsters assessed by councils as struggling, or prone to undergo, vital hurt.
Residential provision is a dysfunctional mess, highlighted by the pricey scandal of unregulated children’s care homes. For many youngsters in care the expertise is appalling. Once out of it, care leavers stay disproportionately prone to find yourself homeless or in jail. Educational outcomes are dismal: 43% of all 19 year-olds are at college; for care leavers that determine is simply 13%.
This is a area in which the federal government’s acknowledged purpose of “levelling up” must have actual that means, not least in stopping youngsters going into care. There are big regional and financial inequalities in care wants. In the prosperous house counties borough of Wokingham, 24 youngsters in each 10,000 are in care. By distinction, in the disadvantaged seaside city of Blackpool, 223 youngsters in each 10,000 are in care.
And but the evaluation was greeted, one sensed, with apprehension slightly than unbridled pleasure in wider social work and native authority circles. Williamson enthused over the “once in a lifetime opportunities” afforded by such a complete evaluation. For many working in and across the system, nonetheless, the nagging query was: alternative for what?
A short take a look at the current historical past of presidency coverage in youngsters’s social care offers a clue as to why so many are nervous. The widespread thread of Tory pondering in this space has been the need to detach social companies provision from council management, academy trust-style, and create outsourcing markets for private providers, justified on the optimistic grounds that every one it will let innovation bloom and drive down prices.
Thus in 2014, the then coalition schooling secretary, Michael Gove, notoriously proposed permitting non-public corporations to bid to run core child protection companies, giving profit-seeking entities the facility to take youngsters from their households. Two years later the federal government attempted to legislate to strip away protections for youngsters constructed up over many years because the landmark 1989 Children Act. Both proposals have been defeated, the previous amid widespread public and professional opposition.
This hardly conjures up a deep nicely of belief. Many doubt the independence of the evaluation chair, Josh MacAlister, the founding father of Frontline (the social work model of Teach First, which fast-tracks graduates into the instructing occupation). For some he is a divisive determine, a chumocrat, too near authorities and company pursuits (others level to his drive and dedication, and real zeal to enhance youngsters’s care).
Another concern is that the terms of reference do not require asking if youngsters’s social care is adequately funded. The pandemic, and the inevitable reckoning for social companies, is astonishingly not talked about. Will the evaluation make the hyperlink between poverty, austerity and rising stress on households, or acknowledge that the place we at the moment are follows years of continual native authority underfunding, and the evisceration of early years services?
It feels churlish to doubt the intentions of somebody who guarantees to ship a plan to “extend the joy, growth and safety of childhood and the esteem, love and security of family life to all children”. But the concern is that MacAlister will fulfil what many imagine is the evaluation’s unstated remit: to offer a uninteresting, predictable constitution for market-style reforms. The worry is that for all of the hype, it is going to be neither sincere sufficient nor daring sufficient.
• Patrick Butler is the Guardian’s social coverage editor