A personal statement from Leon Feinstein on his role as chair of the evidence group for the MacAlister review of children’s social care, which published its case for change on 17th June
Friday, June 18, 2021
I am delighted to chair the evidence group for Josh MacAlister’s review of the care system, described by the Secretary of State who launched it as a “wide-ranging, independent review to address poor outcomes for children in care as well as strengthening families to improve vulnerable children’s lives.”
Josh MacAlister and the review team published their opening position on Thursday 17th June, a statement on the case for change.
The review has heavy billing, not least as the level of government borrowing is higher now than when a previous Conservative chancellor demanded austerity. The current administration may be more inclined to spend but will they spend on children outside of universal services?
The review is also in the shadow of the recent review of the system in Scotland, which was much longer, was evidently led by those with experience of care, and reported into a devolved administration that has a clear articulation of its commitment to deliver the rights of children.
The pressure is certainly on. The case for change sets out Josh’s interpretation and that of the review team of what they have heard so far, in listening to and reading the evidence of personal testimony, academic research, expert views and from responses submitted to the review. From this, the case for change indicates where the review team think the system needs to change.
It is very welcome that the review is publishing the case for change so that everyone with an interest knows where the review will focus and is able to respond on the more specific issues. I know that Josh and the team are very open to all responses on these questions and I know that they are listening. People can respond here.
There are two old cliches about how those outside positions of power in government might best engage in the business of government. One cliché is the lift test, “what do you do if you find yourself in a lift with a senior figure?” How to cut through, what to say, how to be heard? The second cliche concerns a train leaving the station. You don’t get to decide when the train runs, your choice is whether to ride the train.
The Evidence Group is one of three groups providing support to the review. Of particular importance is the Experts by Experience Board, there to ensure a voice in the review for those who have had a social worker (either themselves or a child in their care). The Design Group will help guide how the review designs its recommendations.
In my work I have tried to bring good evidence to bear on policy and practice and help ensure it is used meaningfully and accurately. To do this we need a clear idea about what we mean by good evidence, by what counts as evidence, for who, about what, applied how? We might call this an episteme, a framework of agreement about what counts as knowledge and how it should be interpreted, which allows us to settle on truths or at least determine what we mean by truthfulness, in how we answer research questions intended to inform decisions.
As chair of the evidence group, I can say that the review team have had access to a great deal of high quality evidence of multiple sorts on multiple questions. In the time available Josh and the team have made their interpretation of what it says about what should change in the care system, focusing particularly on the side of problems and issues requiring attention, rather than the many daily successes and positive outcomes that make up so much of existing practice and experience.
The members of the evidence group appointed by the review have submitted their views on the review team’s reading of the evidence and on the team’s interpretation and representations of it. Ultimately the case for change is not primarily an evidentiary paper in the sense of being set up as a research or science project with a clear technical methodology to address a narrow scientific or social scientific question. It isn’t subject to formal peer review and approval in the way that a National Statistic or an academic paper might be. Neither I nor the other group members get to sign off the document. It is ultimately the view of Josh and his team and that is in part what is meant by an independent review. Another reviewer might have looked at the evidence differently and made a different case or called for different changes.
I hope it leads to a fruitful discussion. For what it is worth I think the field suffers from a lack of agreement about what counts as good evidence. Because of the nature of the evidence as yet available and the diversity of views on it, many of the issues in the case for change are subject to considerable uncertainty and disagreement so it is likely that debate will continue.
I don’t think the question of the appropriate balance between statutory care of children and wider support to families is resolved by the evidence available, nor do we know enough in aggregate about what structures best help people provide the right supports to which groups of children at the right times. I agree it is good to have a debate about these things. The available evidence can inform and there will be more evidence gathering in the next stages of the review.
I hope that the review goes on to make valuable and effective recommendations that address many of the issues and challenges raised in evidence to the review and that these lead to real improvements to the experiences of children, families and care experienced people. I hope that the review is able to address the clear call from those with care experience to be heard, not just in the review, but in perpetuity. Finally, I hope the review addresses the need to improve knowledge and understanding both in terms of about how the care system might be improved but also in helping the public and hence government recognise the work of and hear the voices of care experienced people, children, social workers, carers, directors of children’s services and others who are too often drowned out of the public debate.
We will all have differing views on all of this. I hope we will have more blogs in the weeks ahead.
Read more about the case here.