Child and family welfare services: where do we go next?

Dr Carl Purcell, NIHR Health and Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London. His book, The Politics of Children’s Services Reform: Re-examining Two Decades of Policy Change, is just out. (849 words)

As we emerge from the current crisis, we must rethink how we resource and deliver child and family welfare services. The incredible contribution made by everybody working in the NHS is now widely appreciated. But we must remember that there are many others working to protect the most vulnerable in our society who also deserve our recognition. Furthermore, as we move, tentatively, towards easing the lockdown the skills, knowledge and dedication of teachers, childcare workers and social workers, to name just a few, will be vital to ensuring that we are able to identify and support the most vulnerable children and families.

However, as we place greater demands on schools, local authorities and a vast array of voluntary sector agencies we must recognise that before the current crisis our child and family welfare system was already under significant strain. In my new book I reflect upon recent national policy developments to help explain how we arrived in this position. As we chart a way forward, three aspects of the contemporary system need to be addressed.

First, we need to reconsider the extent to which, and how, we provide financial assistance to those who need it most. Since 2010 welfare payments and tax breaks offered to the poorest families have been reduced or withdrawn. Progress made in reducing child poverty over the preceding decade has been reversed, with over 4 million children now living in poverty, many of them in working households (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2018). Moreover, the current crisis has demonstrated how precarious and insecure many people’s jobs are, and we have seen record increases in benefit claims. Many more families have been pushed beneath the poverty line. Continue reading

Social Austerity – Child Protection and Human Rights

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

Senior Research Fellow at HSCWRU, Dr Mary Baginsky, reports from a conference that took place in Komotini, Greece,1-3 November. (456 words)

I spent last week in the small Greek city of Komotini which nestles in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains near to the borders of Turkey and Bulgaria. It has a minority Muslim population, many of whom came from Turkey originally and formed a protected population under the Treaty of Lausanne. They have mostly chosen to stay in Greece through to recent times.

The Democritus University of Thrace was established in July 1973 and is based in Komotini, Greece, with other campuses in Xanthi, Alexandroupoli and Orestiada. The Social Work Department was established in the 1990s. I was invited to contribute to a conference on Social Austerity – Child Protection and Human Rights. Most of the contributions were in Greek with intermittent simultaneous translation. In addition to finding it difficult to concentrate on the translation when animated presenters were more of a draw, the fact that the written programme was all in Greek meant that the subject of each presentation was a surprise. Continue reading

Child protection social work: call for study participants

Nicola Anderson is a child protection social worker who is also conducting a study of what affects child protection social workers working directly with parents. If you would like to take part or learn more about the research please contact Nicola: (441 words)

Engaging parents in direct work is an important part of working in child protection. Sometimes it can be a very difficult task as social workers are entering people’s private family life and interventions can feel invasive. Parents are justifiably reluctant to allow this. Parents can express their feelings to the social worker involved and this can sometimes become aggressive. Social workers meet aggression so often that reducing aggression has now become part of social work (Taylor 2011). Schools of thought are that social workers contribute to parents’ negative feelings as a result of their communication or practice styles. There are movements towards changing the way social workers communicate and work with families with the emphasis on respect, listening and ensuring parents understanding of and involvement in plans and processes, for example motivational interviewing and signs of safety. Continue reading

Families and children’s services: international perspectives

Dr Mary BaginskyMary Baginsky is Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. (565 words)

Early in September I had the privilege of attending the International Conference on New Perspectives for Outcome-Based Evaluation and Research on Families and Children’s Services’. It was held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and emerged from a collaboration between the University, the International Association for Outcome-based Evaluation and Research on Family and Children’s services (iaOBERfcs) and the Zancan Foundation, based in Padua, Italy. It brought together over 150 participants from 14 countries. The conference opened with children and young people performing traditional Chinese drumming and dragon dances and was followed by opening addresses and presentations. As interesting as the latter were, I was still contemplating how the girls at the back of the dragons had danced for 15 minutes while bent at an angle of 90 degrees. Continue reading

Progressive children’s legislation in reverse gear?

Children Act 1989 report (1991)The Policy Institute at King’s and the Social Care Workforce Research Unit have reproduced a 1991 report into the implementation of the Children Act 1989, and updated it with a new foreword and introduction, the latter by Jane Tunstill, who here discusses current legislative proposals. (1,408 words)

It is no coincidence that the longest-running play on the London stage, The Mousetrap, which is still being shown after 64 years, is based on a key tragic event in the history of childcare policy in this country. Agatha Christie recognised that the death of Dennis O’Neill in 1945, at the hands of his foster parents, was a topic to engage the attention of her readers, and audiences have certainly proved her right. The tragedy, and subsequent enquiry, directly triggered the Children Act 1948, which introduced a national framework of children’s departments responsible for the systematic oversight of the welfare of children.

The recent release of Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, has reminded commentators of the popular feeling aroused by his 1965 film, Cathy Come Home. The image of children being taken forcibly from their homeless parents by social workers had a powerful impact on attitudes and national child care policy. Indeed, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) issued guidance in 1971 that no social worker should receive a child into care because of homelessness alone. The 2013 film Philomena attracted huge popular acclaim for its portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church’s forced adoption of the babies of single mothers, and 2016 saw a papal apology for the practice. Continue reading

Common causes: the origins of the Child Poverty Action Group and its relations with social work

Caroline NorrieCaroline Norrie is Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (1,049 words)

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is 50 this year. As part of the celebrations, last month the Social Care Workforce Research Unit jointly hosted a seminar with the Social Work History Network to highlight the history of CPAG and its links with the social work profession.

CPAG is the leading national pressure group working to end poverty among children, young people and families. It campaigns to influence policy; produces information about access to benefits; and provides training for professionals across the UK about welfare rights (including tax credits, and universal credit). Continue reading

An insight into Behavioural Insight – or the evolution of a grudge about nudge

Dr Mary BaginskyMary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (830 words)

When the Department for Education published the Behaviour Insight Team’s (BIT) report on decision-making in intake teams in children’s services earlier this year the sharp intake of breath from many social work academics could be heard across the land, followed by a Twitter tirade. What had led to this?

In another place I have railed against the trend for think tanks and the like to label a shallow dip into a subject as ‘research’ and then to go on to make huge claims that are intended to, and sometimes do, influence policy. But in the past I have also been seduced by the ideas that have emerged from BIT, also known as the ‘nudge unit’. Its stated aim is to apply insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services. So when the unit advised the HMRC to change the wording on some of their letters, the result was an extra £200 million collected on time; and when it found that it was clearing the rubbish out of lofts that stood in the way of people insulating them they suggested providing a subsidised loft clearance and the rate at which insulation was happening soared. However, my admiration did not stretch to the findings of the report on social workers’ decision-making. Continue reading

Sequeli welcomes the First Annual Report of the National Panel of Independent Experts on Serious Case Reviews

Sequeli is a social enterprise not-for-profit limited company which provides training for chairs of mental health investigations, domestic homicide reviews, children’s Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) and adult safeguarding SCRs. The First Annual Report of the National Panel of Independent Experts on Serious Case Reviews was published last month. Here, Gillian Downham, Sequeli‘s founder and Director, addresses the issue of the effectiveness of SCRs (and the training associated with them) that is raised in the Report. (652 words)

As Director of Sequeli, I have worked hard for over a year developing courses, seminars and training materials for the Department for Education’s (DfE) ‘Improving the Quality of Serious Case Reviews’ training programme. It has been a pleasure to work with experienced colleagues, among them members of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London, as well as the NSPCC and Action for Children. I have been steeped in the subject. So not surprisingly I have a few comments on the Panel’s first Annual Report.

Firstly, this is a very welcome Report. It is good to see the Expert Panel have been so assertive on the initiation of children’s SCRs (suspecting that alternatives to SCRs are on many occasions ‘proposed as a way of evading publication’) and publication of SCR reports. The need for independence, thoroughness, openness and proportionality has been the bedrock of the Sequeli approach and at the centre of the DfE training. It is heartening to see these mentioned throughout the Annual Report. Continue reading

Looked after children and offending: reducing risk and promoting resilience

In this guest post, Gareth Crossman, Executive Director of Policy, Communications and Fundraising at TACT, a fostering and adoption charity, highlights research done with the University of East Anglia on the topic of looked after children and offending. (371 words)

In 2010, TACT and the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Research on the Child and Family were awarded a research grant by the Big Lottery Fund. This funded a major project examining the relationship between children in care and the criminal justice system. One hundred young people, along with local authorities across England and Wales, took part in a series of detailed interviews and surveys. The aim was to investigate the factors that caused young people in care to be at risk of entry into the criminal justice system. And, crucially, what were the factors that could promote resilience and help keep them away from criminalisation.

Young people in care are often stereotyped as likely to become criminals. There is no doubt that statistics about prison populations show disproportionate numbers of people who have experienced being in care. However, nine out of ten young people who go into care will never come into contact with the police. The research bore out what TACT’s own experience told us; that when the care system works well it can prove hugely effective in keeping young people out of the criminal justice system. However, negative experiences can lead to greatly enhanced prospects of criminalisation. Continue reading

Student placements in children’s service departments: lessons from Canada

Dr Mary Baginsky

Dr Mary Baginsky

Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London. Here she suggests how universities and social work services could be brought into closer partnership.

Both Martin Narey’s and David Croisdale-Appleby’s reviews of social work education have reported on the shortage of placements for social work students, as well as raising questions about consistency in the quality of those that do exist. The President of the Association of the Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), Andrew Webb, has also said that there is neither the range nor breadth of placements to keep pace with student numbers. Martin Narey went so far as to say that the endorsement process should include an evaluation of the quality of practice placements and recommended that universities which fail to provide every student with at least one statutory placement (or an alternative which is genuinely comparable and accepted by employers as comparable) should not receive endorsement from The College of Social Work. There is, perhaps, an alternative approach whereby the placements a student has completed on their registration are recorded. Anyone who had not completed a statutory placement in the relevant sector would then be required to do one subsequently if they wished to be employed in a statutory setting. The cost effectiveness of this would need to be calculated.

However, making this and similar suggestions does not get away from the seriousness of the situation facing courses and students, but neither is it confined to social work students. The Nursing Times (12 February 2014) reported that student nurses are struggling to get good practice placements because hospital wards are overstretched and staff too busy to supervise them.

It is not surprising that the pressures under which children’s service departments are operating and the number being judged to be inadequate by Ofsted are having an effect on the willingness of managers and practitioners to take students on placements. I am well aware of good practice around the country where universities and local authorities have established strong working relationships. They are usually distinguished by a commitment of the university and/or the local authority to take on responsibility for placements at a relatively senior level. This is usually linked with a commitment on the part of local authorities to embed placements in their workforce strategies and on the part of universities to provide a high level of support, not only to students but also to authorities. As training budgets are slashed and more authorities struggle to retain experienced staff such support from universities is an important factor in being placement-possible if not placement-friendly. In the past some authorities have complained that they have had to take what (and whom) universities have offered but the world has moved on. It is in the interests of both parties to collaborate over the training of existing and future practitioners and this is the conclusion that more authorities and universities are reaching.

Thirty-five years ago Hayward (1979) wrote that:

The assessment of practice aspects of the course has traditionally been regarded as different in quality and far more problematic than the assessment of coursework. (p.175)

Assessment of student practice is still the issue that is commonly cited by practice educators and university tutors as the one that is most likely to lead to disagreement, whether this is in terms of practice educators’ concerns about aspects of the student’s practice or perceived generosity or leniency of one party. On a recent visit to Canada I encountered two initiatives that could be introduced in this country and which have brought universities and social work services into closer partnership.

First, there are many examples in the literature that illustrate how individuals come to quite different outcomes when making an assessment and there are also many examples in the literature of attempts to devise competency-based checklists. One of the most reliable is the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE). The OSCE is used as an assessment tool for licensing exams in nursing, medicine, midwifery and other subjects in the UK, Australia, Canada and the United States. It is used to assess knowledge, clinical skills, and the transfer of knowledge into practice while providing a standardised assessment method irrespective of variations in client or assessor. Marion Bogo, Professor of Social Work at the University of Toronto, has developed an OSCE for social work which is now being used and adapted across Canada and USA. It consists of ‘laboratory’ interviews and structured reflective exercises to see how the student has integrated concepts. OSCE performance and reflections are rated on standardised scales. Initial tests and subsequent applications have shown that the test is a valid tool for assessing practice, even though further development is required. It is being adopted in a number of countries and the question arises as to why it is not as prominent in this country. It is time and labour intensive which, in the current climate, is likely to prove a disincentive. But it is hard to remember a time when this would not have been the case. As well as a potentially more reliable way of assessing students it also offers the opportunity for universities and practitioners to work together on its development.

The second suggestion comes from a visit to McGill University in Montreal. Anyone taking a student on placement who is attending McGill is required to take a course on supervision before the placement. Not only is this a way of attempting to ensure the quality of placements, it means practice educators engage with McGill at an early stage and the university then builds on this relationship in a number of ways. One way is by inviting their practice educators to regular meetings with the faculty members of the Social Work department. I was fortunate to be able to attend one of these meetings and I was struck both by the understanding of the course that the practice educators displayed and by the breadth and depth of the discussion. So while administrative and progress issues around the actual placements were covered, there was much more discussion of issues around the integration of theory and practice and of specific elements of the training. It was evident that there was a shared understanding of the curriculum, which must in turn benefit all involved but most of all the students on placement. It represented a real partnership of practice and academy that is often talked of but not often achieved in England. It is a model that would transfer to this country but again one that demands a significant level of commitment.

It may not seem the most sensible approach to suggest initiatives that will take even more time and application. But it seems that while social work courses have been forced to address the criticisms leveled against some academic input for its lack of rigour and consistency, similar standards need to be applied to placements and ones that go beyond the revised Practice Educator Professional Standards, however welcome these have been. Practice and professional trainers need to address this subject together. They will find many ways of doing so but perhaps these two examples could be in the portfolio of actions they consider.

Dr Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London. Follow Mary on Twitter: @abbotsky


Hayward, C. (1979) A Fair Assessment: Issues in Evaluating Coursework. London: CCETSW.