Grave concerns have been raised about the proposal in the recent fostering stocktake for local authorities to be able to scrap the role of Independent Reviewing Officers.
The fostering stocktake, published earlier this month, argued that there is little evidence to recommend the IRO role and local authorities should be allowed to dispense with the role, re-investing savings in front line staffing.
However Nagalro said that the task of the IRO is to be the voice of the children, who cannot speak out for themselves. The IRO must ensure that they are not lost and forgotten under pressure of more urgent cases and budget cuts.
“The IRO also has a duty to monitor the performance of the local authority’s function as the child’s corporate parent and to identify any areas of poor practice,” the statement added.
Sense of indifference
The fostering stocktake, carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, made 36 recommendations including the establishment of a national register of foster carers.
The stocktake outlines that since 2004, all local authorities have been required to employ Independent Reviewing Officers, who are expected to ensure that care plans for children and young people fully reflect their needs and that each child’s wishes and feelings are given full and due consideration. They also have a duty to monitor the local authority’s performance as a corporate parent and raise areas of poor practice with senior managers.
However the fostering report states: “During the last thirteen years there has been considerable debate as to whether IROs are having the intended impact on service quality and improvement.”
It refers to a thematic report on IROs published by Ofsted in 2013 where the inspectorate identified a number of weaknesses including poor oversight of care plans; excessive caseloads; lack of rigour in review recommendations and follow-up; a failure to consult properly with children; poor quality annual reports; and inadequate oversight of IROs’ work by their line managers.
While the report notes that there have been improvements since the report was published, it said “we got a sense of indifference towards the role”.
“Carers were invariably dubious about the efficacy of the IRO and, very frequently, we heard that the money spent on them could be better invested elsewhere in the care system,” the stocktake added.
Little evidence to recommend the role
The “fundamental problem,” said the report is whether rather than spending large amounts of money checking that children are being appropriately placed and cared for in the care system, that money should be invested in more frontline and line management staff to make that happen.
The potential savings “could be anything from £54 to £76 million or more,” said the report. “Our conclusion is that, despite the commendable commitment of some individuals, we saw little to recommend the IRO role and believe local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, re-investing savings in front line staffing,” it concluded.
Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said that while she welcomed many of the report’s recommendations, she did not support the proposal to remove Independent Reviewing Officers. “We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child’s situation that needs help to resolve,” she said.
Protecting the most vulnerable
Nagalro has said the move would “put vulnerable children at risk”. Nagalro argues that while the stocktake refer to a 5-year-old Ofsted report, it ignores a later study by the National Children’s Bureau, funded by the Nuffield Foundation which concluded that the scrutiny of council plans for children in care was ‘crucial to ensure that the quality of care plans is not compromised’. The authors of that report went on to conclude that ‘where the role works well, it can make a real difference to children’s lives and good practice needs to be shared – and celebrated’.
While acknowledging that the system of IROs is not perfect, Acting Chair of Nagalro, Sukhchandan Kaur believes that it is crucial that children in care have a named professional, responsible for making their voice heard and ensuring that their care plans remain in their interest and are implemented. She said that “it needs to be better resourced and strengthened to protect the most vulnerable children in our society”.
Meanwhile the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers said the recommendation “appears to come from nowhere”. While the fostering stocktake’s argument appears to be based on the opinions of three Children’s Services Directors and a fostering manager, and the undocumented assertion that carers were “invariably dubious” about the efficacy of the IRO, this “evidence” is at odds with the several substantial research reports about the work of IROs including a major study by the University of East Anglia, Nairo added.
“It seems to us that to recommend the disbanding of a service which seeks to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable children on the basis of such scant evidence is irresponsible,” said a statement from Nairo.
“We are pleased to see that many key players in the sector have already rejected this recommendation, including the Children’s Commissioner for England. It would appear that one of the weaknesses of the report is a lack of serious attention to the question of promoting and protecting children’s rights,” the statement added.
“NAIRO of course recognises that there are many ways in which the IRO service could be strengthened and improved. We will be pleased to enter discussions with the DfE and others in the sector about how this may be achieved,” the statement concluded.