If Only

On Friday January 15th the Education Secretary launched the long called for and much anticipated independent review of children’s social care.

According to the government, “this is a once in a generation opportunity to overhaul a system that is failing vulnerable children and creaking under the strain of rising numbers of children entering care.” But for many who have lived and worked in the world of education, children’s social care and academics that have studied this immensely complex system, the announcement was a bitter disappointment. Not least because the government’s chosen chair, Josh Macalister bears all the hallmarks of chumocracy and hidden agenda.

I had wondered where the London Borough of Hackney fitted into the wider world of children’s social care when I made the connection between Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Walshaw, head of Ofsted from 2012 to 2017, Sir Alan Wood founding chair of What Works for Children’s Social Care in 2018 and Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for England (children and families) since 2013. This announcement prompted me to look a little closer.

Sir Alan Wood was the Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services at Hackney from 2006 to 2016. In this era, I attended a ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ presentation, a model that Isabelle Trowler is well-known for co-designing with Steve Goodman, deputy director of children’s services at Hackney. Mary Jackson, now the interim CEO at Frontline, joined Hackney in 2006 to manage the implementation of ‘Reclaiming Social Work’.

Four years later in March 2010 Isabelle Trowler, Steve Goodman and Mary Jackson set up Morning Lane Associates, a private limited company to provide management consultancy services.  The following month Steve Cross, Alison Hubbard (Human Reliability Associates) and Eileen Munro (London School of Economics) completed and independent evaluation of the model. They concluded that Reclaiming Social Work has had a positive impact and the results of this study support and endorse the value of the programme. Morning Lane went on to develop Reclaiming Social Work and it was implemented in a number of local authorities.  

When Isabelle Trowler became the first Chief Social Worker for England in September 2013, she resigned from Morning Lane. Mary Jackson stepped down as a director at the same time but remained with the company until she took up the position of Leadership Development Director at Frontline in January 2015. That year Morning Lane was awarded grant funding through the first round of the DfE’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to test the Hackney model in five local authorities. It is unclear how much public money exactly was paid to Morning Lane because it was part of a consortium led by international consultancy firm KPMG. However, it is known that the company banked at least £2.9m through contracts to deliver children’s social care reforms before is was dissolved in 2019 (CYP Now 6 June 2019).

Two years prior to this Amanda Spielman replaced Sir Michael Wilshaw as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector. Unlike her predecessor, she was not a teacher, she was an account, market analyst and investment banker before moving into the education sector and becoming the policy director for the Ark academy chain in 2004. From 2011, she chaired exams regulator Ofqual three days a week, working with then chief executive Glenys Stacey who later served as HMCI of probation and and led HM Inspectorate of Probation for England and Wales. Whilst at Ofqual she continued working as an adviser on public-private education partnerships as a consultant for Ark, and as an external reviewer for the Teach-First education charity.

However, when Amanda Spielman appeared before the education select committee for pre-appointment questioning, Conservative committee chairman Neil Carmichael said he and his colleagues were “unconvinced” that she was the right person to lead Ofsted, raise standards and improve the lives of children. Her responses on child protection had been particularly troubling. He added that it is unusual for a select committee to find itself unable to support the government’s preferred candidate but the seriousness of the concerns about this appointment led them to report these to the House of Commons and to call on the secretary of state not to proceed. But Nicky Morgan dismissed the concerns raised and enforced the appointment.

Despite not being a teacher Amanda Spielman did have at least one thing in common with Sir Michael Wilshaw, involvement in the development of Academy Trusts. When Sir Clive Bourne opened Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney as one of the first ‘City Academies’ in 2004, Sir Michael Wilshaw became its first principle. He remained there until January 2012 when he replaced Christine Gilbert as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and head of Ofsted. The last full Ofsted inspection at Mossbourne Community Academy was in 2010 when it was rated outstanding. Ofsted say “…most outstanding schools are exempt from routine inspection. We formally carry out a risk assessment of exempt schools three years after their most recent full inspection and regularly thereafter, but do not publish a report.”

A year after Sir Michael Wilshaw joined Mossbourne Community Academy, Amanda Spielman joined Ark Schools Academy Trust as a founding member of the management team. Ark Schools is the educational arm of an international children’s charity founded in 2002 by a group of financiers. The chair is Paul Marshall who along with Ian Wace is the co-founder of Marshall Wace Asset Management Ltd, a big hedge fund. Shortly before joining Ark Amanda Spielman had completed further studies in Comparative Education at University College London. She took up the role of Majesty’s Chief Inspector and head of Ofsted in 2016.

Fast forward to Bonfire Night, Thursday 5th November 2020. The government was under increasing pressure from the media about private equity investment in children’s homes, a lack of suitable placements for the increasing number of children coming into care, and the use of unregulated children’s homes. In response to questions about the long-awaited Care Review promised in the 2019 manifesto, the children’s minister told Children & Young People Now it was set to begin “very imminently”.

The following month Gavin Williamson announced that prominent academy trust boss Rachel De Souza was the governments pick to take over from Ann Longfield as the Children’s Commissioner, but remained silent on the launch of the Care Review. Rachel De Souza CEO of Inspiration Trust said she was honoured to be nominated.

During the recruitment process concerns were raised about her ability to take on the role due to her lack of experience, and a lack of transparency within the recruitment process itself. Then in a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, committee chair Robert Halfon wrote that her evidence to the committee highlighted several deficits in her knowledge and experience. In particular, they were concerned about her apparent lack of knowledge of some areas relevant to her new role. Key among these were in the field of children’s social care and fostering and adoption, youth services, the youth justice system, child and adolescent mental health and the wider immigration system.” Paradoxically, despite these concerns, the committee found that Rachel de Souza was a “competent candidate”.

Inspiration Trust was founded by Theodore Agnew in 2012. A year later he became a non-executive board member of the Department for Education and chairman of its Academies Board unit July 2015 when he was appointed lead non-executive board member of the Ministry of Justice. He became Baron Agnew of Oulton on 19 October 2017 and was appointed as an education Minister. He resigned from Inspiration a year later after this appointment.

Rachel De Souza became a dame in 2014 for services to education and in 2016 she founded the campaign group Parents and Teachers for Excellence with Jon Moynihan, a venture capitalist who is listed alongside her as a director. The campaign was devised with the help of Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to David Cameron and James Frayne former director of policy and strategy at Policy Exchange a right of centre influential think tank founded in 2002 by conservative politicians. The group aims to promote the principles its members believe deliver the best outcomes for pupils. These include a knowledge-based curriculum, more assessment and effective discipline.

Four weeks after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed the appointment of Rachael De Souza on 17 December 2020, he announced that Josh McAlister a former teacher and CEO of Frontline a registered charity and private limited company to provide ‘teach first’ training for social workers was to chair the Independent Children Review. In response leading social care academics, charities, professionals and some members of the care experienced community raised concerns about his lack of independence, experience and sincerity. This appointment is seen by some as blatant determination by government to depend on a network of friends and allies to progress the privatisation of children’s services including social work and child protection.  

Frontline was initially proposed in 2010 by Josh McAlister who aimed to mirror his personal ‘teach first’ experience of teacher training in social work. Three years on it had been incubated by Absolute Return for kids the parent organisation of Ark schools, Boston Consulting Group, and the centre left think tank IPPR  the institute for public policy research. At the launch on 14 September 2014 he was able to count on powerful support from Education Secretary Michael Gove who provided £1m start-up funding from the DfE and, Lord Adonis a labour peer, trustee of teach first and patron of Frontline, who was taken into care as a child. An independent evaluation of the Frontline project undertaken by Cardiff University was published by the Department for Education in 2016. It said inspiration for the model came from the reclaiming social work initiative developed in Hackney.

After taking what amounts to little more than a peep behind the scenes of the children’s social care review I realise that my hopes for the “wide-ranging, independent review to address poor outcomes for children in care as well as strengthening families to improve vulnerable children’s lives”, were over optimistic and naïve. Much as I would like to believe otherwise, the panel of experts by experience that has divided the social care community appears to be no more than window dressing for a review that is merely a vehicle to progress a political agenda that can be traced back to the 1980’s.

Driven by conviction that private is always best, outsourcing was introduced by the conservative government to lessen state bureaucracy, improve quality and reduce costs.Children’s homes are a particularly graphic illustration of public sector monopolies being replaced with private ones. Billions of pounds worth of public services from street cleaning to schools have been outsourced, large IT contracts across government are awarded to the private sector and charities run large chunks of the social services for the elderly and disabled. We are all familiar with the marketisation and privatisation of public services and the ‘if only’ rhetoric used to justify it https://eprints.kingston.ac.uk/id/eprint/32689/1/Jones-R-32689.pdf.

“If only we had competent teachers in our classrooms, if only schools provided effective discipline, if only we had great social workers, if only we had outstanding leaders, if only universities did not churn out crap teachers and social workers…”

Families would not be living in poverty, children would not be deprived, increasing numbers of young people would not be suffering poor mental health, prisons would not be over-populated with disadvantaged children come of age, too many care leavers would not become street homelessness when they turn 18, and they would not be more likely to die in early adulthood than other young people. 

If only this were true, if only the government had kept its promise, if only the government was willing to learn from the mistakes of the past. Some may think we should just move on and forget the past but believing without asking questions is dangerous, it runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes. I believe that personal stories provide insight into what has gone wrong with children’s social care and without looking at this from all perspectives the system will remain broken and worse still the blame culture will reign.

“Divide and rule, sub-divide and rule even more powerfully, fragment and rule absolutely.” Frank Herbert

 When Gavin Williamson launched the Care Review he said, “this is a once in a generation opportunity to overhaul a system that is failing vulnerable children and creaking under the strain of rising numbers of children entering care.” What he didn’t say is that the government is intent on reducing the financial burden of children’s social care and that behind the scenes there is a network of hand-picked allies and well-connected beneficiaries who will decide how this is done. In this context, the Twitter announced decision of Josh McAlister to echo calls already made by the last children’s commissioner and the communities select committee to the Competition and Market Authority for an investigation into aspects of the children’s social care market is intriguing. Not least because panel member Jeremy Newman is an active director of Frontline.

Whether driven by well-informed intentions or not, in my experience there has always been an elite in children’s social care united by vested interest. There are ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and where you are positioned will determine your success or your fate. But I do not believe responsibility for the failure of children’s social care is sector or agency specific. It is the telling culture created by the relentless attack on children’s social care, the dominance of fragmented expertism, and the environment shaped by this over the last forty years that explains its failure.

Amanda Knowles MBE

Posted in articles.

Leave a Reply