NIROMP submission to Mark Owers as part of the National Fostering Stocktake – Independent Reviewing Officer’s (IRO) as a Resource 

National IRO Manager Partnership

Introduction

The IRO service is well positioned to hold a balcony view as IROs serve the whole of the looked after children population. From a national perspective this gives a lens for this cohort of children that no other service can offer. It can allow the IRO Service to be the eyes and ears of an organisation that is wise enough to use them to this end.

When we met on 12 July 2017 you welcomed the input from the National IRO Managers Partnership (NIROMP) and asked for co-operation in informing you how we see our role could be strengthened and how we make an impact on children’s lives. Set out below are some headlines for your reference.

Contextual challenges

The pace of change facing local government is unrelenting. Budget constraints, increasing demand, assessing more complex needs, technological advances, and practice reform have all created turbulence, uncertainty and challenge.

According to the latest DfE data, the number of looked after children continues to increase; it has increased steadily over the last nine years. At 31 March 2017 there were 72,670 looked after children, an increase of 3% on 2016. The number of children starting to be looked after in 2016-17 has also risen in recent years and has increased by 2% compared with the previous year. The number of children ceasing to be looked after in 2016-17 has fallen by 2% compared with the previous year.

The Local Government Association (LGA) have estimated a £2 billion funding gap in children’s services by 2020. The ADCS and the LGA have both stated that the current resourcing is no longer sufficient to meet the level of demand and complexity facing local authorities.

About NIROMP

The partnership formed originally in 2004 as a ‘working group’ made up of IRO Managers who were representatives from the Government regional areas across England, to work with the Department for Education (DfE) on ‘IRO guidance’ for The Adoption and Children Act 2002. With our advice, the roles and responsibilities of the Independent Reviewing Services became embedded within the framework of the IRO Handbook, linked to revised statutory Care Planning Regulations and Guidance which was introduced in April 2011.

IROs are highly experienced social workers and managers. The IRO role was strengthened through the IRO Handbook – broadening the IRO’s responsibilities towards children in care and reinforcing their enhanced statutory responsibilities to ensure that concerns about the child’s plan or their care are addressed and resolved.

NIROMP continues to work directly with government, acting as advisors in relation to guidance, policy and practice; and sharing regional and national information in relation to care planning and outcomes for children and young people in care and care leavers. National leads meet in London four times a year, and we are grateful to the DfE for hosting our meetings. Each region has a well organised programme of regional meetings / events with clear lines of reporting to regionally elected Chair’s. Elected Chairs represent their region at the national group.

Over the last couple of years NIROMP has worked hard to increase its capacity. It now has a number of practice leads with the aim to:

  • Bring extra capacity to help the partnership and its members stay ahead of good practice, to be responsive to policy updates, consultation exercises and research projects
  • To keep members up to date with developments and service issues
  • To provide leadership of task and finish groups which can be called on for specific support by DfE, local authorities and other key stakeholders, as required.
  • To provide peer evaluation and review.
  • To provide learning and improvement conferences and events.

What IRO services are already doing to help local authorities to support children and families

Research undertaken by the Rees Centre and the University of Bristol (2015) has shown that care is a positive protective factor: for those children that need to be in care, the longer they are in care the better their outcomes. IRO’s, as experienced managers, continue to drive a tight reviewing and challenge framework underpinned by statutory guidance. We believe IRO services have helped to ensure improvements to children’s outcomes however need for improvements in a context of uncertainty and challenge remains.

NIROMP’s national networks cover the length and breadth of England with Regional representatives sitting on the National group. This allows us to have a good insight into how regions respond to new initiatives, where there may be areas that are resistant to challenge from and between IRO’s and where there are positive innovations being implemented that could benefit children and young people across the country. One such development was the use of social pedagogy in children’s care plan reviews. In short this is about ensuring the child’s review only covers what they want to talk about, any other statutory aspects are covered in another arena.  As a result a number of IRO services nationally have developed this or something similar as a delivery style for their areas. The outcome is that children not only engage more in their reviews but also have greater participation.

NIROMP is well positioned to outline both the strengths and challenges within the care system. As a group we support sector led improvement. An example of this is the regional work undertaken on permanency plans being in place at the child’s second review. This was following a request from the West Midlands Regional ADCS group. This was a qualitative piece of research completed by each area within that region that culminated in a report being presented to the ADCS group.  We would like to see similarly collaborative approaches extended to all regions as part of a coherent, joined-up strategy to support sector led improvement.

A further piece of work NIROMP are undertaking is a ‘State of the Nation’ survey.  The purpose of this survey is to provide a national measure that could further support sector led improvement. It will be used by NIROMP to inform the work of our regional networks and as a means to share ‘what works’ ideas to assist development of best practice across the country. The survey attempts to take into account the wider context within which the IRO service operates.

Ideas about what else IROs could do to help local authorities to support children and families:

Ensuring the child’s views are taken into account in care proceedings

The Good Practice Protocol for Public Law Work was developed in response to the need to agree a clear understanding of the statutory roles and interface between Cafcass and the IRO Service. The Protocol is supported by the DfE, the NIROMP and NAIRO as a good practice model.

In 2016 Cafcass and NIROMP undertook a national survey which considered how well the Good Practice Protocol had been implemented across the country. The findings revealed considerable weaknesses and variations in how IRO’s views were sought and utilised as part of court proceedings and it raised questions about areas of duplication and role overlap.

NIROMP would like to see the Good Practice Protocol revisited alongside further consideration of the impact of judicial reforms to the roles and responsibilities of Cafcass and the IRO service. We believe the IRO service could be better positioned for example to offer courts reassurance that the child’s plan will be robustly reviewed post court proceedings.

Contributing to sector led improvements

NIROMP would welcome increased opportunities to contribute to strategic planning, learning and development as part of our ongoing commitment to achieve sector led improvements.

As part of this drive, NIROMP would welcome a statement from the Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families about the IRO role in strengthening safeguarding and quality assurance mechanisms and the government’s support for it. Our members believe that this might help to address some residual uncertainties about the role and function of the IRO Service.

NIROMP would also welcome further discussions with ADCS, Cafcass, Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Chief Social Worker for Children and the Ministry of Justice. Our members would like to see more stringent processes in place to ensure that sufficient weight is given to the view of the IRO Service in the effective implementation of assurance mechanisms and regulatory services charged with overseeing safeguarding arrangements and quality of care planning and care services.

NIROMP members often report that performance measures can lead to a focus on process because it is easier to quantify. We agree with the ADCS and Ofsted position that government and councils need to have a better way of evaluating how things are working. The IRO Service is well placed to contribute to peer-evaluation as part of Ofsted’s new ‘ILACS’ approach – the inspection of local authority children’s services and we would welcome discussion about how this might be achieved in practice

NIROMP members believe that the role of registration, regulation and inspection services across the care system could be strengthened further by ensuring that emergent themes and views provided by the IRO Service are integral to wider assurance and regulatory systems. We have been pleased by Ofsted’s increased attention to the role of the IRO Service and we hope that they will continue to look carefully at how IROs describe what ‘good’ practice looks like so that Inspectors are better helped to get the right balance between process and practice with IROs forming an integral aspect of evaluation.

IROs are well placed to assess to assess the quality and effectiveness of local authority planning and support for children and ensuring that the responsible authority fulfils their responsibilities as a “corporate” parent for all looked after children. The informal and formal escalation process within each local authority provides a mechanism to raise concerns though these tend to be limited to social work. We would like to develop protocols with partner agencies, to allow for escalation of any issues and reporting of good practice across a range of disciplines and settings. Where local authorities can see the support the IRO Service offers there is good and healthy challenge which is welcomed by both parties and importantly is welcomed by the children and young people we are here to serve in public services.

IRO’s are well placed to help identify areas of both strength and weakness. NIROMP has a strong regional and national reach. We are keen to do more to assist local authorities – to share emergent themes within areas. When this is then brought together regionally and nationally powerful change can emerge.

A focus on children and young people’s rights and entitlements

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) published the findings of their latest Inquiry into children’s social care services in England in March 2017. The report, ‘No Good Options’, pulls together information obtained throughout the duration of the Inquiry which ran from February 2016 to January 2017.

Amongst the key findings, the report identified insufficient attention to children having a say in their care. While many councils follow good practice in involving children in strategic decision-making, including through Children in Care Councils, the Inquiry heard that in many places children in care are not routinely involved in decisions about their own support.

The report concluded with a set of twelve recommendations with two that we would like to highlight as important to policy and practice development and improvement:

  • The Department for Education should support and incentivise local authorities to improve participation practices so that vulnerable children play a meaningful role in their care.
  • Children’s participation entitlements, including to advocacy and support from Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), should be protected.

Contributing to the evidence base of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care

The ‘No Good Options’ report (para 24 above), warns of a postcode lottery in how law and policy relating to children is applied. Figures indicate councils are taking ‘wildly different’ approaches to early intervention and identification of ‘children in need’ and a ‘huge variation’ in the way in which local authorities decide to support the most vulnerable children which cannot simply be explained by differences in deprivation – instead pointing to variation in policy and practice.

Now that the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care has gone live and if agreed by the ADCS, NIROMP could undertake a schedule of task and finish work based on an agreed methodology. The national group could help add capacity by testing and contributing to the evidence base as part of the forensic future work of the What Works’ Centre.

Strategic and scenario planning, performance and improvement

NIROMP would welcome the introduction of a regular meeting e.g. annually, between the IRO Manager and the Lead Member / Chief Executive / Director of Children’s Services, Local Safeguarding Partners the Corporate Parent Board and Children in Care Council to review service outcomes in support of children in care and care leavers. This would also help to ensure the effective implementation of the IRO Handbook and any Good Practice Intra-agency Protocol. It might assist endeavours to have more meaningful conversations, at the right time, that results in actions that involve the right people at strategic level, so that the whole approach can be considered and actions developed that challenge all services to improve as heard directly from the collective voice of children and young people.

IRO services exist to ensure that children are effectively safeguarded and that their individual and collective voices are heard. It is essential that children and young people have a strong voice in decision making around their own care arrangements as well as in the development of wider service and policy initiatives. Children in care have IRO’s to provide support, advice and assistance about any aspects of their care arrangements. Their collective stories are well known to the IRO service and could be better utilised as part of combined efforts to achieve better care services as part of sector led improvements.

Updating of the IRO Handbook and introduction of a Good Practice Intra-agency Protocol

NIROMP would like to see, and contribute to, review of the IRO Handbook. We would suggest this happen alongside the development of a Good Practice Intra-agency Protocol applied to local authorities and all schools and for it to be referenced in the updated Working Together. We would envisage both the Handbook and the protocol giving emphasis to a requirement for independent legal support and representation for IROs and a statement about the organisational status, workloads and training of IROs.

We would envisage the good practice protocol being applied to:

• local authority chief executives
• directors of children’s services
• local safeguarding partners
• teachers and education staff
• social workers
• health service professionals
• adult services
• police officers
• voluntary and community sector workers in contact with children and families

  • Ends –

Read the original referenced submission NIROMP submission to Mark Owers – IROs as a resource.

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