You can download our full response to the Care Review's questions, posed in its report The Case for Change, or read our response to the consultation's opening question below:

What is the purpose of children's social care?

We wanted to begin our response by addressing the first question of purpose raised in the Case for Change. We do believe that having a sense of shared purpose is absolutely vital in public and charitable services, but not when framed technocratically as the purpose of a single specified service.

If we started from the breadth of different functions that children’s social care needs be ready to perform with and for children and families, the answer to this question could only be: ‘It is whatever each child and their circumstances need’. As the brilliant recent thread by Becca Dove, head of Early Help at Camden Council, illustrates, even within the purpose of ‘early help’ (and before even considering the purpose of foster care, child protection social work, or support to disabled children, for example) the range of things a social care department will need to do day-to-day are myriad – from helping families to take up their full benefits entitlements, or helping to navigate the housing system, to doing life-story work or confidence-building. Each person and their family and circumstances is unique, and good social care practice will respond to those unique needs and strengths in partnership with the child and their family. This would appear to make a singular functional purpose for children’s social care impossible to define, and rightly so if we are to retain and nurture the capacity to respond to each unique person and their changing circumstances appropriately.

We do, however, believe a sense of purpose is vital for good practice, and for meaningful collaboration and partnership in meeting children’s needs and upholding their rights. In 2014 we co-produced a Declaration of Interdependence for children, to bring statutory and voluntary sectors, professionals and volunteers together in a shared sense of partnership under a common purpose and vision:

We share the vision and commitment to create a society where all children and young people are valued, protected and listened to, their rights are realised and their families are supported

The Declaration was our first collaborative policy venture in our ongoing mission to challenge the terrible damage done by New Public Management in children’s services (characterised by obsessions with the 3M’s: markets, managerialism and measurement). Our fundamental point here is to underline that a renewed sense of shared purpose needs to be part of an entire paradigm shift in how we approach the management, funding and delivery of all public services (not just children’s social care). Parachuting a new definition of the official purpose of children’s social care into a system that remains riddled with market thinking and outsourcing of specified tasks, obsessed with performance measurement instead of what children and families need and want, will only create further fragmentation and rigidity in a system that is already chronically damaged, fragile and at risk of collapse from the effects of 30 years of New Public Management.

This view of the systemic malaise and maltreatment of people in need caused by New Public Management is what led to our CEO, Kathy Evans, being one of the founding members of the Human Learning Systems collaborative.

The Human Learning Systems approach starts with the belief that public service exists to support human freedom and flourishing

In a similar way to the shared purpose in our Declaration of Interdependence, we believe that is the kind of purpose that offers a meaningful sense of direction in what we should all aim to achieve with and for people, while allowing for co-production and creativity in how to do it, allowing for variation and adaptation to respond to individual needs and different people’s rights, personal priorities and strengths. Human Learning Systems, and the many growing examples of places, organisations and public sector professionals putting the HLS philosophy into practice in their communities, services and systems, is, we believe, a vital source of learning and inspiration in how to make the Care Review an endeavour that might truly rethink the whole complex social care system affecting children and families in a way that makes it more human (less technocratic, procedural and transactional) and more firmly and continually driven by learning - from children, parents, carers and professionals – not by ‘deliverology’, KPIs, competitive bidding and compliance.

In our more recent work, the ChildFair State Inquiry, we have been led by children and young people (including many with experience of social care in their lives) in rethinking and improving the whole welfare state so that it works better for children – and for everyone – in the 21st Century. In that work the shared purpose across all branches of the welfare state has been thought about as:

Creating the conditions in which all people’s most fundamental human needs can be met – the needs for home; safety and security; love and belonging; health; and a sense of purpose

As we see in the Human Learning Systems philosophy, a sense of purpose in public services should be one that applies universally to human beings, not one that pathologizes the minority of people who need help today as different because of their needs, who then risk becoming viewed and categorised as deficient in some way. The sense of shared purpose in creating the conditions that all humans need in order to thrive is a purpose under which all separated branches of the welfare state (benefits, schools, housing, the NHS) can be reunited in a shared purpose, and can understand their interdependence with each other. It also underlines that in creating the kind of conditions and services that support every child to thrive, everyone has an active role to play in creating them, from the child and their parents, carers, neighbours and friends, to the joint efforts of the professionals and the local and national systems that work with them.

All three of these examples of a shared purpose for children and families for public services and systems are worth considering for the Care Review. We would, however, be very concerned to see a narrow, professionalised definition of the purpose of children’s social care. Social care is many things, and ought to be led and managed as being in constant flux and adaptation, doing what’s needed, not what’s pre-determined.

Our consultations with members have also shown that they are concerned about the siloes and fragmentation of the social care system already, and fearful of what a technocratic, managerial approach to determining a new purpose and duties might do to worsen this. In the themes that emerge from their varied perspectives and expertise, the need for consistent principles and a whole system view are clearly emphasised. In particular:

  • There should be equity and equal support for all parents and caring roles, including parents whose child returns to them after a period in care
  • There should be no hierarchy of preferred or discouraged types of care – every kind of care is right for some children, and wrong for others
  • There should be a consistent whole-system focus on the rights and entitlements of every child and family member, whether they live together or not, not an obsession with assessing risk and placing everyone on a spectrum of “early” or “late” intervention needs
  • Related to the above, children whose first contact is with a different branch of the state, for example immigration control or housing services, should always be seen as children first, accorded their rights and protections from the responsible local authority under the Children Act 1989

Our members are submitting further detail on the issues caused by silos and managerialism in social care, such as the cliff-edge in support for children and young people leaving care, and what improvements these children and young people need. The remainder of our consultation response will address the system as a whole, drawing on analysis and proposals already shared with the Review team as they apply to certain questions in the Case for Change. As an infrastructure body for the children and families sector, we do not have the expertise to address every single question posed by the Case for Change, and know that many of our members and colleagues across the sector will be addressing the other questions with extremely relevant insights and ideas for reform.

- Download our full submission to the Care Review's Case for Change consultation