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A picture of Dr Ciaran Murphy.

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Opinion – Social workers need smaller workloads and more funding

February 8, 2023

An opinion piece by Dr Ciaran Murphy.

In this opinion piece Senior Lecturer in Social Work Dr Ciaran Murphy examines England’s children’s social care system following the government’s announcement that it will increase funding for the service.

The government’s long-awaited response to Josh MacAlister’s Review of Children’s Social Care was released last week with a headline announcement that £200m would be invested in improving England’s children’s social care system over the next two years. As a Trustee for the Association of Child Protection Professionals (AoCPP) I understand the difficulties social workers face.

As it stands England’s children’s social care system is one of the best in the world. Every year thousands of children are removed from situations and parents that cause them harm. Social workers work incredibly hard investigating difficult, sometimes harrowing, cases of abuse and neglect. The many successes within the system come despite its chronic underfunding dating back to 2010 when the government’s austerity policy was launched.

By way of example, one Greater Manchester local authority was compelled to cut their Children’s Services budget, not including school spending, by an astonishing 82% between 2010 and 2020. The £100m saved by this single local authority is fully half of the total amount that the government has committed to “fix” England’s entire children’s social care system.

These cuts have been replicated at local authorities all over the country. Most savings have been achieved by closing early help and preventative services like Sure Start Centres. Cuts to these services combined with cost-of-living pressures have driven more and more families into crisis, placing huge increased demand on an already overstretched system.

This has led to a massive increase in caseloads with averages numbering more than double the recommended maximum safe level proposed by Herbert Laming following his detailed review into the death of Victoria Climbié.

Considering these pressures there is a sad inevitability to the growing number of high-profile cases in the media highlighting major failings in the children’s social care.

Josh MacAlister’s review was carried out following the tragic case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, a young boy killed by his father and stepmother in June 2020. At the time Arthur was visited by social workers who observed that his home was clean, and all seemed normal. Arthur’s grandfather has rightly asked why Arthur wasn’t examined more closely, as any examination would have revealed bruising, and why his repeated calls for help weren’t listened to. So how could a social worker miss signs of abuse?

One answer is that frontline social workers are simply spread too thinly, with feelings often shared that they don’t have enough time to spend with individual children. It is clear to anyone that if the system is operating at levels deemed unsafe things will be missed, and that children whose unique circumstances did not fit neatly within predefined cohorts like Arthur, would be especially susceptible to slipping through what’s called the “net of protection”.

The £200m committed by the government last week is less than 8% of the minimum £2.6bn identified as being required by the government commissioned review of children’s social care. Moreover, it is less than 5% of the minimum amount that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services say that we need to get the system back to the place of safe operation. A colleague at the AoCPP gave a one-word assessment on the government’s funding promise – “inadequate”.

Until we as a country properly financially invest in the services that support children in care and those in need of protection, it is inevitable that more tragedies will occur, and more difficult questions will continue to be retrospectively asked of workers, service providers, and national government.

February 8, 2023


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