Consequence of austerity for the care system: Views from senior managers

Life chances for children in care in England and Wales are poor in comparison to their peers. However, if professionals enable children and young people to effectively participate in their care plan, it has the potential to have a positive impact on their self-esteem and confidence.

Children have a right to a say in their care, which is enshrined in the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child and The Children Act 1989. But my research in one local authority in England found that senior managers’ understanding of child centred practice appeared to be limited, their curiosity subdued and their willingness to challenge poor practice stunted (Diaz 2020).

For Margaret Heffernan (2012, p 32), major issues can occur ‘when leaders chose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where they could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes them feel better not to know’.

For the futures of the children in their care it is vital that senior managers making decisions about their future remain engaged in their work and carry out their duties diligently. However, my interviews with senior managers raised a number of problematic issues.

When answering questions about children’s participation in decision making, senior managers acknowledged that there were real challenges in this area of practice. But they also assigned blame both to young people who might (understandably) be aggrieved at their experience of the social care system and to social workers who they perceived as performing inadequately.

“If everybody was great and good at what they do then things tend to function but the barriers will often be around incompetence”
Senior Manager

There was little recognition of the high workloads that social workers faced, with some having caseloads of over 30 children. Furthermore, even though the number of children in care has risen significantly in this local authority in the last five years the number of social workers has remained consistent.

When asked for basic information about the review process for care plans a lack of knowledge was also evident. Senior managers acknowledged that most children in care in that local authority did not have an up-to-date care plan. This meant that the central purpose of the children in care review was not being carried out as often there was no care plan to review. Whilst supportive of the concept of children and young people being at the heart of practice, senior managers were unable to articulate how they were going to ensure this happened.

It is worth noting that in this local authority the number of senior managers has halved since 2010. It is therefore likely that workloads for senior managers are now so high it has become an almost impossible job to do well. The impact of austerity being ‘baked in’ is likely to lead to children in care continuing to receive a poor service from overwhelmed senior managers and social workers.

Dr Clive Diaz, Cardiff University
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Diaz, C. (2020) Decision Making in Child and Family Social Work: Perspectives on Participation. Policy Press, Bristol.

Heffernan, M (2012) Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious, London: Simon and Shuster.

My opinion did not matter: Views of parents and young people on child protection conferences

Children are made subject to a Child Protection Plan when they are deemed to be at risk of significant harm. Central to the implementation of a Child Protection Plan is the Child Protection Conference (CPC), a meeting of between 8-25 people, including social workers, teachers, health visitors, police officers, parents and young people (where they are deemed mature enough).

For this study we conducted research in two local authorities in England. We interviewed 52 parents and 40 children who were subject to a child protection plan. An overwhelming majority of the parents in our study described the CPC experience in a negative way, using words and statements such as “tearful”, “not listened to”, “intimidated”, “stressed” and “angry”.

“I feel like whatever I say in a meeting is disregarded”
(32-year-old mother)

Most parents reported feelings of powerlessness and stated that they found conferences to be a very intimidating experience.

Young people reported having little understanding of the purpose of a CPC. Moreover, when they were included they did not feel like their views were being taken seriously through the process.

“I prepared myself and thought I would have a say.
Afterwards I stormed out crying and never went back.
The Chair asked me a question then shut me off”
(16 year-old-girl)

“I felt my opinion did not matter.
I couldn’t speak at the conference”
(15 year-old-girl)

Government guidance states that social workers should work closely with families to try and increase parents’ and children’s meaningful participation during the child protection process, both to encourage joint working and offer support to families. But the negative feelings children and parents have about CPCs have the opposite effect of discouraging their participation in their meetings and impacting negatively on the opportunities for social workers to build up positive working relationships with parents and children at a crucial time.

My research found that a determining factor in the reporting of negative feelings around the CPC is that social workers are not adequately preparing families for the meeting. The majority of the parents reported that they only saw the social work report for the CPC either the day before the meeting or on the day of the meeting itself.

Parents wanted the social worker to share reports and assessments well in advance, and to take time in discussing the report and the process with them. Parents reported that often there

was inaccurate or out-of-date information in the social work reports. Receiving them just before the conference meant there was no time to properly challenge incorrect information or amend it. If parents did try to challenge social work reports some reported being told that they were not ‘engaging’ which made things worse for them.

Thirty-eight of the 40 young people interviewed had not seen a report related to the meeting. Only those who had attended a CPC recalled having seen a report or assessment.

If we are serious about supporting vulnerable children and families, and valuing and properly considering their meaningful participation in decision making about their lives, we must start by taking more care with the process – ensuring families and children understand the reasons for meetings, are adequately prepared for them, and realise their participation is both necessary and valued. By taking more care with the process, the quality of care itself can improve.

Dr Clive Diaz, Cardiff University
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Diaz, C. (2020) Decision Making in Child and Family Social Work: Perspectives on Participation. Policy Press, Bristol.

A study into children and young people’s participation in their Child in Care Reviews.


Author: Clive Diaz

Year: 2018


The concept of service user participation in the delivery of services that affect them has gained momentum over the last thirty years. Children are no exception to this and those in care are subject to greater scrutiny of their lives than their peers. This study considered a key meeting for children in care – the Child in Care Review – and examined the extent to which children and young people are able to participate in these meetings and retain a level of control over their lives. The research, undertaken in one large local authority in England, explored the perspectives of children and young people, Social Workers, Independent Reviewing Officers and Senior Managers in individual qualitative interviews. The interview data was analysed thematically. The study found that young participants who reported a poor relationship with their Social Worker were more likely to feel negatively about their review and most young participants said that they found the review frustrating and stressful. The young participants were very aware of the workload pressures that Social Workers faced and how bureaucratic processes often seemed to translate in to them not receiving a good service. The Social Workers and Independent Reviewing Officers highlighted the importance of children’s participation, but in practice their commitment to the concept seemed minimal. Data would suggest some significant disconnection between Senior Managers’ views and all other participants’ perspectives on the challenges faced by social workers in terms of caseloads and workload pressures. Senior Managers reflected that little seemed to have changed in relation to children’s participation in their reviews over the last twenty-five years. The thesis concludes that as a vehicle for participation the Child in Care Review is still not working well, however the development of children chairing their own reviews offers some hope for the future. This practice could be built upon to ensure that children and young people leave Local Authority care with the best possible chance of becoming confident, stable and empowered adults. 

A Study on Senior Managers’ Views of Participation in One Local Authority… a Case of Wilful Blindness?


Authors: Clive Diaz & Tricia Aylward

Year: 2018


Children in care are one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and senior managers should be committed towards improving their well-being. Empowerment through participation can contribute to this. This study considered the extent to which young people in care were encouraged to participate in decision making, particularly in their review meetings. The paper explores the views of seven senior managers in one local authority in this regard. It formed part of a wider study in which social workers, independent reviewing officers and young people in care were also interviewed. Findings indicate a disconnect between senior managers’ views and other participants. Senior managers were unaware of the challenges that the social workers and independent reviewing officers said they faced. Their understanding of meaningful participation appeared to be limited, their curiosity subdued and their willingness to challenge limited. Senior managers informed that care plans were not up-to-date or considered at the review and were unsure about what opportunities children had to participate and how management could support this. Senior managers reflected that little seemed to have changed in relation to children’s participation in their reviews over the last twenty-five years.

‘Just another person in the room’: young people’s views on their participation in Child in Care Reviews


Authors: Clive Diaz, Hayley Pert, Nigel Thomas

Year: 2018


This article discusses a key meeting for children in care – the Child in Care Review – and examines the extent to which children and young people are able to participate and exert a level of control over their lives. The research, conducted in England, formed part of a wider exploration of the views and experiences of all those involved in such reviews, namely Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), social workers, senior managers and – the focus of this article – the young people concerned. Most of the children interviewed said that they found their reviews frustrating and stressful, often attributing this to poor relationships with social workers and scepticism about the value of the review process. However, they recognised the workload pressures facing social workers and the bureaucratic constraints affecting the service they received. The article argues for the continuing importance of the IRO role, given the consistency it provides for children in care. It also shows that while it provides an opportunity for children’s participation in discussions about their future, the Child in Care Review is underperforming. The developing practice of children chairing their own reviews offers one way forward and the article calls for this to be developed and for other creative methods to be introduced to enable young people to play a meaningful part in meetings that affect them.

Meaningful participation of children and young people in decisions about their care

Meaningful participation of children and young people in decisions about their care

May 2019

This training webinar explores children’s participation, particularly in relation to children in care reviews and child protection conferences. It considers the findings of three studies which included interviews with children in care, children subject to a child protection plan, and their parents, senior managers, social workers and IROs. It discusses what good practice looks like in relation to meaningful participation by young people, particularly in children in care reviews, and outlines some of the barriers and enablers to high-quality child-focused practice.