The 2016 edition of the 1991 report from Professor Jane Tunstill and the In Need Implementation Group, giving principles and guidance on the implementation of Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. With thanks to King's College London and the Social Care Workforce Research Unit.


The past can illuminate the present. The Social Work History Network meeting on the Children Act 1989 (held on 8 June 2016) reminded us of this visionary piece of legislation which sadly has never been fully implemented. The gap is most obvious in relation to the development of family support services to assist children in need. It goes to the heart of continuing debates about whether children’s services should be universalist and preventive or targeted at children at risk. And over the last quarter of a century those debates have tended to be resolved by scarcity of resources rather than rational analysis. Some publications date quickly. Others stand the test of time. This guidance remains timely and relevant. Its principles for good practice* serve as a foundation for good practice in social work with children. They deserve re-examination in these difficult times.

Terry Bamford, OBE, Chair, Social Work History Network, October 2016


The history of social policy is littered with what John Stewart, back in 1997, labelled ‘wicked issues’. History also reflects an enduring political reluctance on the part of most governments to acknowledge the longevity of these challenges, along with a conviction that current initiatives inevitably possess new and magical answers. Social Work History Network discussions always seek to be useful in helping revisit such enduring debates, in the light of both contemporary policy developments, and,as importantly, of the current evidence base.

In the context of children’s services, no challenge continues to be more pressing than that of achieving the optimum balance between the resourcing of preventive or reactive services, and between services for children in and out of home. (The 1989 Children Act addressed the task in Section 17, Part 3, by placing a duty on local authorities to ‘promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need, and subject to that duty to promote the upbringing of such children by their families’.)

Whilst in every policy era the relevant legal and professional terminology is different, the challenge of getting the right balance between prevention and protection remains very much the same (Tunstill et al, 2010). Over 20 years ago the Department of Health acknowledged:

‘A broadly consistent and somewhat worrying picture is emerging. In general, progress towards full implementation of Section 17 of the Children Act has been slow. Further work is still needed to provide across the country a range of family services aimed at preventing families reaching the point of breakdown. Some authorities are still finding it difficult to move from a reactive social policing role to a more proactive partnership role with families’ (Department of Health, 1994, p.16).

15 years on, the same problems persisted:

‘In the wake of Lord Laming’s review of safeguarding, we hope the important contribution made by universal and preventative services to keeping children safe will be reaffirmed ... We are convinced that better early intervention is vital to reducing the likelihood of child misery and ensuring children’s wellbeing’ (Cabinet Office/House of Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools & Families, 2009).

Now, in 2016, although the relevant terminology is now one of ‘early help’, no ‘magic bullet’ has been unearthed:

‘Every local authority area should have an early help strategy to ensure that problems for children and families are identified early, and responded to effectively as soon as possible. The aim is to ensure problems do not escalate to become more acute, and more costly, to the detriment of children and families, by investing in effective community services and multi-agency coordination. Early help requires a collaborative approach from all agencies, including schools, with the active involvement of children, young people, families and carers. The local authority usually takes the leadership role in coordinating effective strategies, information and access points for children and families, backed up by evidencebased interventions. The availability and impact of early help is now assessed in Ofsted inspections of effective child protection (Local Government Association, 2013).’

It therefore seems timely to revisit this 1991 pamphlet, both in terms of its campaigning role as well as its substantive content. It was generated as a contribution to the process of implementing the 1989 Children Act, by a cross-sector working group of practitioners, managers and researchers, who came together under the auspices of National Council for Voluntary Child Care Organisations (NCVCCO, now Children England). These individuals represented a range of child and family organisations, all of whom had concerns about aspects of the implementation of Part Three of the Children Act. They included Jo Tunnard and Mary Ryan of FRG (Family Rights Group); Ruth Gardner of NCB (National Children’s Bureau); Jane Streather from Newcastle Council; Pauline Hardiker from Leicester University; and Murray Ryburn from Birmingham University. The group chose the name ‘In Need Implementation Group’. There may be implications for current policy campaigners as well for current service providers and individual practitioners in the enthusiastic way this group collaborated, and in the material they produced.

As NCVCCO Policy Adviser from 1988 to 1995, I had been able to develop a fruitful series of university/NCVCCO joint research partnerships over the period (including with Oxford University; University of East Anglia and Leicester University). These arose from our Department of Health commissioned research on various aspects of the 1989 Children Act (Aldgate and Tunstill, 1995; Tunstill and Ozolins, 1994; Tunstill and Aldgate, 2000). In addition to the research capacity this activity embedded in NCVCCO, these academic links generated a number of research publications and prompted interest in NCVCCO’s policy work. The dissemination of formal research outputs helped increase the research profile of NCVCCO, and policy documents and pamphlets such as this one, were picked up by the mainstream child care literature (for example, Gardner and Manby 1993; Colton et al., 1995).

The pamphlet reproduced here was initially circulated across and beyond the voluntary sector membership of NCVCCO, including throughout the statutory sector members of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and of the Association of County Councils. (These two organisations, along with the Association of District Councils, subsequently came together in 1997 as the Local Government Association.) The composition of the In Need Implementation Group provided access to a further range of organisational and professional routes for dissemination, including key campaigning groups such as the Family Rights Group, membership organisations such as National Children’s Bureau, as well as major voluntary sector bodies including the NSPCC and Barnardo's.

The pamphlet attracted a positive ministerial response in public statements at conferences at the time of publication and it reflected work being undertaken in several local authorities, including those who had participated in the working group such as Newcastle on Tyne City Council, North Tyneside Council, and Birmingham City Council. The values and strategies it outlines are intended as a modest contribution to current deliberations about the optimum direction of services for children and families. It is a reminder of the benefits of cross-sector collaboration and indeed within-sector collaboration, as well the value of establishing genuine partnerships between practitioners and researchers. Furthermore, the pamphlet hopefully serves as a reminder of the necessity for thinking long term about the enduring challenges involved in delivering early help to children in need and their families. Changing the terminology doesn’t change the scale and importance of the task.

Professor Jane Tunstill, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London, October 2016

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*The principles proposed by the In Need Implementation Group are:

  1. Universalism: We all use and need services, whether we are managing to lead relatively 'normal' lives or we are in crisis and under stress. Families of children in need have full rights to the wide range and diversity of universalist provisions (health, social security, employment, housing, education, leisure) as well as those more specialist services to help them over particular difficulties.
  2. Equality and equity of access to services: Everyone in our community has rights to accessible family support services; parents requesting help should not be stigmatised and their access to a wide range of services must be facilitated.
  3. The normality of difficulties in parenting: Service should support and supplement families' endeavours, especially when parenting difficulties are compounded by poverty and deprivation.
  4. Participation: Parents usually know what their needs are and their views should be taken seriously.


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