Workers hope for Munro reform

Child protection workers hope the Munro review will signal an end to stifling layers of admin and bureaucracy and bring a return to more frontline work with families, says Sally Gillen. But will it live up to its promise?

For child protection social workers weighed down by unmanageable caseloads, the Munro review has been a breath of fresh air. Among other things, Professor Eileen Munro’s team will consider how best to slash the bureaucracy which often stands in the way of good practice.

“People say that there were never halcyon days, but in 20 years I have never seen children’s services under so much pressure created by the system,” says Sue White, a member of the review team and professor of social work at the University of Birmingham.

Apart from raising the bright prospect of less red tape, Munro’s review will focus on promoting early intervention and giving social workers more time for face-to-face work with troubled families, something made even more urgent by a 24.6% rise in referrals since the death of Baby Peter in 2007.

Many experts believe that the bureaucratic demands made on frontline child protection work deserve their place high on Munro’s hit-list. The combination of basic but time-consuming administrative tasks such as photocopying and updating computer records is seen as betraying the last government’s obsession with process at the expense of direct work with children and families.

Returning to a core role

White believes that proper administrative support should be reintroduced and that the armies of staff already employed by councils, often to take referrals in call centres, could potentially provide it.

The government review, led by Professor Eileen Munro, has been briefed to identify ways in which social workers can get back to their core role and build on the findings of the Social Work Task Force (SWTF), of which White was also a member.

Munro’s initial report is due to be published this month, with the final report scheduled for April 2011; the universally unpopular Integrated Children’s System (ICS) for keeping computer records is likely to be in the firing line. Social workers have been heard to complain that it takes 10 times as long as it should do to complete a care plan and have demanded an overhaul of the system.

“I don’t think anyone can believe there will be such a regime change but there is going to be a relaxation of the very prescriptive way of working,” White says. “There will be a recording system of some sort and it may be possible to strip down ICS to provide this.”

In Hackney, the children’s services department has created social work units, each of which has a co-ordinator who takes responsibility for administration. Social workers now have more time to “go out and practice”, says Isabelle Trowler, assistant director of children’s social care and safeguarding, adding that the local authority had also adapted its ICS to reduce the paperwork burden.

Reducing paperwork

“We are opponents of the ICS and always have been,” she says. “It is very difficult to tell a family story through that, so we have made significant changes to it. We were forced to buy a product when we knew it was not fit for purpose.

“There is a lot of repetitiveness in the system and we have been able to reduce the amount of paperwork but still collect the data that we need.”

White argues that social workers would be released to spend more time with children and families if Ofsted relaxed its emphasis on targets. “Inspection needs to be looking at outcomes rather than arbitrary time scales,” she says.

“Everybody runs around trying to complete tasks and it’s like a conveyer belt. What we get is a referral, some work done within the timescale and then case closed because of further demand coming into the system. These [cases] come back again and again because they were never really sorted out. They are clogging up the  system.”

White says that workers in universal services, such as education and health, do not want to deal with cases on the threshold of children’s social care. “They are just too frightened to carry the risk and so they refer them on, increasing, not decreasing demand.”

She adds: “Social workers are often based in offices miles away from the communities they work with. They need to be embedded in the neighbourhoods in which they work, with strong relationships with other professionals located there.”

Raising standards

Head of safeguarding at Barnardo’s, Jenny Myers, agrees that social work needs to be much more integrated with universal services in the community.

“Research shows that half of children who die or who are seriously injured or neglected under the age of four are known only to universal or adult services,” Myers says. “It is a myth to think only children known to children’s social care are the ones who die. If social workers are based in nurseries, schools and health centres, these children will be identified earlier.”

But identifying these children is reliant on social workers who have the skills to do so, and there is a massive push to improve the quality of social work degrees. The SWTF highlighted problems around the calibre of some new entrants to the profession, not all of whom have the essential mix of “academic and emotional intelligence” to be a social worker, as SWTF chair, Moira Gibb, put it.

In July the General Social Care Council published inspection reports for the first time that revealed just 14 of 83 courses had fully met all the requirements. But, even with the GSCC’s impending demise, “impossible to fail” degrees are set to become a thing of the past. If the Munro review lives up to its promise of a return to core social work, more top quality graduates will be waiting to take up jobs in the profession.

Aims of the Munro review

• More time for social workers to build relationships with families

• Less paperwork, which has “mushroomed out of control”

• More training to deal with parents who are aggressive

• Less risk-averse social work and more leeway for exercising professional judgment

• More emphasis on early intervention and joined-up working with Sure Start

• More accountability, commanding public confidence in social work
Good practise in action: Placement in the community

In 2008 Westminster council began a three-year pilot to “remodel” child protection social work, funded by £650,000 from the Children’s Workforce Development Council. It paid for four social workers, including two senior practitioners – who are based in two primary schools, a secondary school and a health centre – and covered the cost of two social work assistants, a learning development co-ordinator and pilot co-ordinator, Helen Farrell.

Farrell explains: “The social workers spend half the week in universal services, working alongside teachers, schools liaison officers and health workers, so they are based much more at the forefront of where children go, to improve communication and integrated working.

“Social work assistants meet fortnightly to sort out administrative tasks. They don’t carry a caseload so they can do a lot of admin work, such as helping a parent with a benefits form, filling out a charity application for a washing machine or chasing up referrals from other services. Social workers can then focus more on direct work with children and doing more early intervention.”

Social worker Anna Sklair, who is based in a primary school, says it is “incredibly useful” to have administrative support. “For me it was appealing to think about trying to get back to the core skills of social work, to be working directly with children and families.”

Sklair identified one child who was suffering “horrendous neglect” and is now the subject of care proceedings, by doggedly pursuing the case and insisting she accompany the mother and child to their home. She got beyond the front door to discover faeces on the walls.

“I can support families below the threshold and information is much more readily available when you are in the school and you can pick up on school absence just by walking past the receptionist and asking if a child is in,” Sklair says.

“I’ve had some parents who self-referred, which is unheard of, but because I was in the school the parents were familiar with me. If we retreat back into our building, well, I can’t see that as a way forward.”