23rd May 2022

The Children’s Commissioner responds to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

I wrote on Friday about the things I wanted to see included in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. This list is based on all the things children and young people have told me, and I am indebted to them for sharing their experiences with me in the hope it will make things better. About the urgency with which we need to see ambitious, brave and consistent reform of children’s social care, our fourth emergency service, to improve children’s experiences and outcomes. Children in care are ambitious for themselves: they want the same things as their peers, a fantastic education, a brilliant job, loving and supportive family relationships. We must be as ambitious for them as they are for themselves.

Now the Review has been published, I wanted to share my thoughts on some of the specific areas of focus and where we need to go further to deliver the change children have told me so often, they desperately want to see. Too many tell me they feel let down by the services designed to protect and support them, so let’s seize this chance to do better.

Stability

It is great to see the Review highlighting the importance of stability and loving relationships in the care system. The new national standards and regional commissioning structures will be crucial to ensuring that children do not have to move home so many times, and that more children are placed closer to home. I will work closely with government to push for the highest possible standards of care and a rigorous system to commission and plan for care placements. I want all children to grow up in stable, loving, safe and happy families, not in institutions – for some children that will be with a foster carer, or someone in their family who isn’t their mum and dad, and for others, it will be with adoptive parents. What I want is for children to know that these relationships will be there for them in one year, three years, five years, so that children can make plans put down roots.

Join up

The Review sets out a radical programme of transformation for the children’s social care system. Similarly ambitious plans have been outlined in the Government consultation on the SEND system, the Schools White Paper and ambitious reforms are under way with the introduction of the Health Bill. Given the significant overlap between the education, SEND, social care systems and the NHS, it is vital that we grasp the opportunity of these major reforms to work towards a more integrated support system for children. Otherwise, this will be another missed opportunity to make a real difference in children’s lives. We are pleased to see the recommendation that schools become full and statutory members of safeguarding partnerships, something I have called for previously given their important role in children’s lives.

I’d like to see a comprehensive and cohesive implementation plan that covers these four vital areas of children’s lives.

Data and tech

My office has for some time been working with practitioners and policy experts on how to improve data sharing in child safeguarding environments. I have also been supporting the DfE on pushing for the development of a Unique Child Identifier which will enable important safeguarding information from across Government to be linked, and enable services to track children’s progress, and provide them with more integrated support.

I have been clear for some time that we must ensure that the data we collect is meaningful and relevant to families and is available to all practitioners and experts who need it, and therefore welcome the Review’s continued focus on data and technology.

The Review calls for the creation of a centrally funded National Data and Technology Taskforce with the skills in place to help local areas design and build the digital services which will make exchanging information easier and quicker, and for the Department for Education to play a bigger role linking data from multiple datasets across government. These announcements represent an important step in the right direction and are ones which on the whole I support. However, I would like to see Government and stakeholders go further with more ambitious plans for implementation in the short term, including additional guidance to support practitioners in the day-to-day sharing of child safeguarding data and clearer support for local authorities and organisations looking to use existing legal gateways to design services. Whilst I am confident the Review’s recommendations will, in the long term, deliver the tools desperately needed to improve data sharing, I am clear that there must be a whole armoury of tools at our disposal if we are going to address all the long-standing data issues which affect children’s care.

Family support

I welcome the focus on investing in and improving early intervention and family support. As the Review sets out, offering support to families early on, before problems escalate, is critical to children’s outcomes. I welcome the ambition on investing in and improving early family support. This is crucial as too often children are involved in the child protection system because their families have been struggling for some time, and if support had been provided early enough, they may not have needed a child protection response.

I want to see much more support provided earlier for families – and as a first step I very much welcome moves in this direction such as support for the development of family hubs. I am conducting my own Independent Review into the family, which will report in October this year, and will further look at how we can better support families, build on what we know works and see families as relational units not just individuals.

I want to make sure too, that the children who need to be taken into care, have the best support possible. I have spoken to lots of children for whom care was a sanctuary from really difficult situations, for whom care has been a positive thing, or the right thing. Often, we hear from children that going into care has been a huge relief, after long periods of instability and worry. These children want to maintain contact with their family, but can’t live with them, often they would have been better going into care earlier. We must not lose sight of this cohort, and the need for improved acute child protection services in the drive for increased family support.

Mental health

I would have liked to see more focus on the join up between the care system and care for children with mental health needs, particularly those who need inpatient care. I have seen far too many children coming to my Help at Hand service who are being passed from pillar to post between the NHS and their local authority when they need more joined up mental health and social care support. The RCCs provide a golden opportunity to work closely with ICSs in Health to join up care more effectively.

Disability

Similarly, I don’t believe the review focuses enough on social care for disabled children. Too often, families with disabled children report feeling judged by the care system, which is focused on child protection to the detriment of providing more support for families who need help. I would like to see a further focused piece of work from DfE and the DHSC on social care, SEND and wider support for disabled children and their families. This work should link to the Building the Right Support programme, which is working to prevent children being admitted to hospital unnecessarily.

What next?

The publication of reviews are only ever the first stage in a process, and the ideas held in them only as good as their implementation. Therefore, we must not underestimate the need to act now and invest all our energy into making this vision a reality – so many children’s lives and futures are at stake. I know we can do it, I’ve seen it for myself. As well as the difference it makes when children get amazing support. We need everywhere to be as good as the best. We must have no tolerance for anything less than excellent, no patience for good enough.

This is a big job, we can’t promise overnight results. There is no silver bullet. We need to be prepared for the long-haul. What we need is a children’s services transformation programme and an Implementation Board, with ministerial sponsorship and oversight, to make sure we deliver needed reform. There are places doing it brilliantly, but also nearly half of services aren’t good enough. We must learn from the best. We must have no tolerance for anything less than excellent. No patience for good enough.

What does success look like? When we can answer that yes, it is good enough for our own child. Every time.

I look forward to doing whatever I can to make this much needed reform a reality. We owe it to England’s children.