A summary of the reports and consultations recently released relating to foster care in England

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Andrew Walker, a member of The Fostering Network’s practice support team and a social worker, reflects on a summer of consultations and reports in England.

So much for work slowing down during the summer. The Westminster Government and related agencies issued a flurry of documents for consideration in June and July which have kept the Practice Support Team busy in between going away for their summer holiday.

The Children and Social Work Bill is wending its way through Parliament and is now waiting to return to the House of Commons in October. This proposes some significant changes which will impact on looked after children and their carers. Alongside improvements to the provision for care leavers, plans to increase the numbers of children adopted from care and changes to serious case reviews are two more contentious issues. The first of these is to allow local authorities to apply for exemptions to parts of legislation which they feel are restrictive and prevent them improving services. This may appear all well and good but there are concerns that it will lead to variations in provision for looked after children around the country – risking the introduction of a “post code lottery” which is so regularly criticised by the media and politicians. The other contentious part of the Bill is the proposal that from 2018 there will be a new regulatory body for social workers. Nothing major there you might think, social workers have already moved from the GSCC to the HCPC; but this time the plan is for social workers to be regulated by the Government via an executive agency of the DfE. No other group of professionals in the UK is directly regulated by the Government – it would be nice to think this is planned because central government cares so much about social workers’ welfare, but I’m not sure and the policy statement issued in June doesn’t convince me – it talks about improving social work. Social workers would like to do that as well – but it can be tricky when someone keeps moving the goalposts.

Putting Children First

Having had a bit of time to digest the new Bill, in July we then had the magnificently titled Putting Children First, which sets out the Government’s vision for the changes they plan for children’s social care by 2020.

This was followed quickly by Sir Martin Narey’s review of residential care for children that the DfE asked him to conduct. Narey used to be the “adoption tsar” until he resigned earlier this year to turn his attention elsewhere. His report is very positive about many aspects of residential care and interestingly makes more references to foster care than Putting Children First!

On the same day that Putting Children First was published the Government issued a consultation on the knowledge and skills for achieving permanence. This is part of a codification of the knowledge a skills that social workers are required to hold. The general levels were issued last year and these are the first that move on to what is required for specific tasks. The chief social worker for children, Isabel Trowler, has been hard at work on these and the consultation runs until September so we’ll be busy formulating our response and making sure that long-term fostering is given equal status with other forms of permanence. Many fostering social workers and foster carers would agree that some children’s social workers don’t have enough knowledge of how fostering works to be able to effectively support long-term foster placements – here’s our chance to ensure that they have that knowledge and the skills to go with it.

Meanwhile, the Government has issued a review of the roles and function of local safeguarding children boards and the manner in which serious case reviews are conducted, which of course links in with the proposals in the Children and Social Work Bill. SCRs often make grim and sad reading, but they are essential learning tools for social workers.

And there's OFSTED too

Not wanting to be left behind by the DfE, OFSTED have also been issuing multiple documents to make sure that social workers don’t nod off in the sunshine! Current reading includes: a statistical analysis of children’s placements for the period April 2014 – March 2015, a description of how they will monitor and re-inspect local authorities judged to be inadequate, the third OFSTED report on the state of social care in England, and a major consultation on the future of social care inspection.

Like the DfE consultation this one has to be responded to by early September. The consultation is wide ranging and asks for views on the plan to introduce a single framework for all inspections which will be used to inspect local authorities, independent fostering services, boarding schools and everything in between. This appears to be a good idea – creating a better way of measuring across the whole of children’s services, but we need to go through it closely to make sure that the fostering sector is treated fairly and the specific nuances of the sector don’t get lost amid a move to generalisation. We’ll also need to consult with our members, particularly the independent sector which will no doubt have something to say about the proposal to reduce the notice for their inspections from 10 working days to one day.

Just in case all of this isn’t enough to keep us busy we’re also digesting reports from the House of Commons Education Committee on the mental health and well-being of looked after children, the reform of social work as envisaged in the Bill and from the children’s commissioner on access to CAMHS and the impact and outcomes of independent advocacy services for looked after children.

Finally – we’ll be considering another Government consultation, on mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect which will put a duty on social workers and others to report suspected child abuse with penalties for failing to do so, including prison sentences.

Hope you’ve had a good summer so far. Ours is proving to be rather busy!

Andrew Walker