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A Row Has Broken Out Over The Independence Of A Major Review Into Children In Care

6 min read

The independence of a major review into children in care in England has been called into question after the government appointed a charity boss whose organisation is primarily funded by the Department for Education to lead it.

The row was sparked by the appointment of Josh MacAlister to lead the review. A Teach First-style organisation for social work called Frontline set up by MacAlister received £45 million from the Department for Education to train social workers in 2019. He will give up his CEO role permanently and focus on the review for the next 12 months. 

But leading social care academics and care charity figures have raised concern that the government is depending on a small network of friends and allies to conduct major pieces of work. 

As well as heading up Frontline, MacAlister co-authored a report a ‘Blueprint for Children’s Social Care’, that suggested a model that would give social workers a 60% increase in ‘face-to-face time’ with children and families, and a 20% reduction in caseloads.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the review will benefit from MacAlister’s leadership, and his understanding of the challenges facing the system and how to improve outcomes for children.

MacAlister has also defended his appointment, highlighting his eight years of experience working working in children’s social care. He also noted that funding received by Frontline from DfE was commonplace within the sector.

Professor Andy Bilson, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire, representing The Parents, Families and Allies Network has written to the DfE to share his concerns. He told PoliticsHome that people who have experience of the care system personally were not involved in his appointment, nor were they involved in selecting the experts with care experience who will participate in the review.

“This review is massively needed. The care system is on the point of collapse,” Professor Bilson said.

“I am really concerned about what they've said about involving people who are Experts by Experience [of care].”

He said government documents had people with experience with care “may” be asked to attend meetings every two months – so potentially six sessions in a year.

“You start to think ‘may be asked’ isn’t a fabulous level of contribution,” Professor Bilson continued. 

“We should give MacAlister a chance because this has been decided before he’s been appointed, but let’s hope he has enough independence to say that isn’t enough of an involvement of parents who have lost their children to care, or children who have been in care.”

MacAlister is able to determine how frequently engagement with people with experience of the care system will take place, and people may meet in smaller events and workshops, pushing the engagement far beyond every two months. The 'Experts By Experience' Professor Bilson refers to is reportedly just one of the ways people will engage with the review.

Professor Bilson, a former Director of the Council of Europe and Unicef’s Observatory on European children’s rights, also has concerns about the past Blueprint report. He said: “How is his mind going to be open enough, and independent enough, given that he's already said what the blueprint should be?”

There are currently 78,000 children in care, with an increase of 20,000 children from data collected in 2009. People who spend time in care as children are almost twice as likely to die prematurely than those who did not.

“He is embedded with the DfE, and crucially he wrote the Blueprint which is heavily favoured in the DfE” – John Radoux, child therapist and writer

John Radoux, a child therapist and writer who grew up in care himself, and has been very vocal on social media about why he thinks the appointment of MacAlister is wrong, told PoliticsHome said his appointment had the hallmarks of “chumocracy”.

“He is embedded with the DfE, and crucially he wrote the Blueprint which is heavily favoured in the DfE,” he said.

“Even if he had written a blueprint and I agreed with every word, the independent review of the care system needs to start with a clean slate, gather evidence, and draw conclusions about how to reform the care system,” Radoux continued. 

Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, a small charity that supports children in state and privately run institutions, said: “Ministers appear to be increasingly reliant on a small government bubble of friends and allies to undertake tasks of great magnitude. 

“We had hoped that someone like a highly respected retired judge or academic, or a reputed children’s author, would be appointed to undertake this incredibly important role.”

But MacAllister is not without supporters of his appointment. The government's chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, tweeted that the review was a golden opportunity for radical change and MacAlister was the best person to make this happen. Labour's shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the review by the DfE was good news and wished him well. A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Josh MacAlister was appointed because of his understanding of the challenges facing the system and his experience of implementing innovative solutions. Josh will permanently step down from his role at Frontline to take up the role of independent reviewer and will be expected to comply with the Seven Principles of Public Life, in line with standard practice for senior appointments.

“Both Josh and the review terms of reference have set out how important it will be to engage with families who have experience of the care system. The published application form for the “Experts by Experience” group is explicit that this is just one of the ways the review will do this. Once work on the review begins, the reviewer will set out publicly his plan and approach to this.”

A friend of MacAlister told PoliticsHome that as a Labour party member, MacAlister was “no patsy” to the Dfe, and wouldn’t be afraid to tell them home truths or suggest vast amounts of investment is needed to fix the children’s care system.

On the significant amount of funding Frontline received from the DfE over the years, he said: “There’s not many in the sector that could be free from that.”

Responding to criticism on Twitter, MacAlister said he would stand down from Frontline, and other charity boards he sits on to focus on the review.

He said: “I’ve spent 8yrs working in children’s social care and many in DfE and elsewhere will tell you that I have my own views and share them!

“A few suggest that because I've secured government funding for charitable programmes I won’t be independent. By this logic, those in Las [local authorities], academia or elsewhere who secure public funding for projects would fail the independence test.”

Frontline’s website says they are mainly funded by the DfE’s Innovation Programme. 

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