Andrew Adonis discusses how Teach First could be extended to social work and the role for state boarding schools in helping children in care.
The social work profession has had a terrible time, overwhelmed by horrendous cases of child abuse and neglect which social workers failed to prevent. Care homes have fared even worse in the wake of abuse scandals.
The failures are real enough. But so are the successes, and so is the selfless dedication of social workers, foster and adoptive parents, and staff in care homes, who work day-in day-out to support children from inadequate, dysfunctional or non-existent birth families.
I say this from personal experience. I was in care until the age of 16 and in a Camden council children's home until the age of 11. I was lucky to have a remarkable ex Barnardo's lady in charge of the home, who became a surrogate mother (we called her "auntie"); and a brilliant social worker who took on Camden's social services bureaucracy to enable me to go to a boarding school at eleven, part paid by the council, as the best way of providing a stable education while returning to my family.
It wasn't much fun, and I wouldn't wish the state on any child in loco parentis save in clear necessity. But where needs must, the state and the nation's army of adoptive and foster parents do a good job for tens of thousands of children each year.
The biggest challenge is to recruit and motivate enough good social workers. A social worker is both guardian and gateway - the guardian of children at moments of extreme vulnerability, and the gateway to new or better arrangements for their parenting.
Yet social work is in a state akin to inner-city comprehensive school teaching a decade ago: an undervalued profession in semi-crisis, with low self-esteem and alarming vacancy and turnover rates. Thurrock in Essex recently reported a 38 per cent vacancy rate. The vacancy rate across Greater London as a whole is 15 per cent, twice the figure in Scotland.
Part of the problem is that with constant emphasis on re-regulating social work, basic recruitment is not given priority. The latest in a succession of reviews of child protection - this one led by Professor Eileen Munro - encapsulates the mindset. In a 60 page interim report, recruitment and motivation of social workers are barely mentioned. Instead we are told that "the fourth systems theory idea that the review will draw on is that of the 'socio-technical system', contrasting the 'technical' approach to understanding child protection with a 'socio-technical' approach."
This is the mindset which has produced 390 pages of government guidance on child protection and 424 pages of supplementary guidance. In 1974, the year I left my children's home, there were precisely seven pages. Meanwhile, children in care are passed like a parcel between different social workers, with too little continuity and engagement.
The recruitment crisis needs to be tackled with urgency and fresh thinking. A welcome development is the piloting of GP-style social work practices, run by charities and practitioner-led social enterprises which operate independently of council children's services departments. Bizarrely, these are being opposed by some unions and local authorities as "the privatisation of social work," although they simply transplant a model that is the bedrock of the NHS.
Success stories from the early pilots show social workers with high levels of motivation, able to spend more time with the children in their care, making good use of managerial and service-delivery flexibility. The heads of these practices take responsibility for recruitment, with an incentive to promote social work with flair and enthusiasm. If this model works, it should be extended rapidly.
Another idea is to extend the Teach First model to children's social work. Barely a decade old, Teach First is this year recruiting 800 high-achieving graduates to teach in secondary schools in deprived areas.
Under Teach First, graduates undergo intensive tailored training immediately after graduation. They commit to teaching for only two years, although more than half stay for longer and many are now taking on management positions. The powerful combination of social purpose, esprit de corps, challenging but fulfilling work, and limited career commitment have made Teach First an outstanding success. With inspired leadership, there is no reason why a new Children First organisation could not repeat this success.
Recruiting more foster and adoptive parents is equally imperative. Last year the number of children placed for adoption fell sharply and more children are waiting longer to be adopted. The government is rightly calling for greater use to be made of voluntary adoption agencies, which pro-actively seek appropriate adoption placements. The up-front cost of agencies is off-putting to councils, but a successful adoption can be far better for the child - and less costly over the medium term - than short-term foster or care placements; and the agencies have a strong incentive to market the attractions of adopting, so enlarging the pool.
State boarding schools
State boarding schools could also serve the needs of more teenagers in care. As Schools Minister I promoted an expansion of places in England's 34 state boarding schools, which charge for boarding but not for education. I also encouraged academy sponsors to pioneer boarding within their independent state schools. Three academies - Harefield in west London, Wellington in Wiltshire and Priory in Lincoln - are opening boarding houses and I hope that others will follow, providing places to children with boarding need including those in care.
Here again, a change of mindset is required. Boarding school options barely feature in social work practice, and connections are often poor between the social work and education divisions of supposedly integrated council children's services departments. If councils can pay foster parents, why not boarding school fees?
Until well into middle age I regarded it as a stigma to have been in care and barely mentioned it. But those of us with this experience, in a position to make things better, have a duty to speak out and to lead. Children's lives are literally at stake.