Why schools are vital to children’s social care reform

Despite the many challenges they were already coping with, schools met the huge additional pressures of the pandemic head on. Now, with the ink not yet dry on the government schools white paper and SEND green paper, I know I will not be a popular man for suggesting there is yet another new report that requires schools’ attention. But there is.

I must declare an interest: I was the review’s working-level contact in my last role at the DfE, which I left last summer. I’ve moved on, while Josh MacAlister steadfastly spent over a year independently reviewing the children’s social care system, and we all have an interest in the outcome, published last month.

The thinking behind this review is complex, but the core message is simple: the children’s social care system must be redesigned around the children and young people it serves, not around individual, siloed services, as is too often the case.

This change would mean high-quality family support early on, rather than waiting for crises to escalate. It would mean bringing services together and removing the need for handovers as far as possible. And it would mean making better use of existing family networks in caring for children.

This is not a niche issue. According to government figures, 1.6 million children needed a social worker between 2012 and 2018. That one in ten children, or three in every classroom.

Currently, too many of these children are not being kept safe. Roughly half of local authorities’ children’s services are rated as’ Inadequate ‘or’ Requires Improvement ‘by Ofsted, compared with only 13 per cent of schools.

The review also highlights that outcomes even for children in need (those with a social worker but not looked after or on a child-protection plan) are shocking. They are “50 per cent less likely to achieve a strong pass in their English and maths GCSEs” and “three times as likely to have an unauthorised absence”.

Outcomes for children in need are shocking

It is no surprise that this has serious ramifications in later life. According to estimates cited by the review, “26 per cent of the homeless population have care experience [and] 24 per cent of the prison population in England have spent time in care ”.

MacAlister’s report highlights in no uncertain terms that we must do better. So what role should schools play?

First, the review notes the vital job schools have in sharing information: “Teachers, doctors and nurses, health visitors, neighbors and the wider community are the eyes and ears of the child-protection system”.

That means schools building on the lessons learnednt from the shocking cases of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and, more recently, Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson – maintaining professional curiosity at all times and sharing information as soon as possible with safeguarding partners. In the future, the report recommends that this information-sharing is made easier, including through greater use of technology.

Second, it recommends the creation of new ‘family help teams’ as a core part of the solution to the huge decline in early support for children. These will be “based in community settings, like schools and family hubs”. It calls on the government to properly fund this, with an injection of an extra £ 2 billion over the next five years. And it also highlights the vital role of LA-employed virtual school heads can play in supporting children while they’re in school.

Finally, the report wants to see schools made the fourth statutory safeguarding partner. MacAlister finds that “in too many places the contribution and voice of education is missing”. Legislating to change this would be a significant step requiring genuine engagement between the school system and LAs, perhaps made harder by the move to full academisation set out in the schools white paper.

So, while readers may not be part of the 50 per cent who responded positively to Nadhim Zahawi’s idea that teachers should become foster carers too, I do hope you will agree that children who interact with the care system deserve better, and the schools system should do all it can to make that a reality.

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