High quality provision for children in care yet to be realised by Independent Reviewing Officers
Independent reviewing officers (IROs)1are prevented from realising high quality planning for children in care due to the challenges of making the role work in practice, according to a research study published today by leading children’s charity the National Children’s Bureau and the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.
All children in care have an IRO, an adult who has oversight of their care plan and is empowered to act on their behalf in challenging the local authority. The research confirmed that IROs can have a real impact on ensuring care plans are properly reviewed, and they can contribute to improved support and services for looked after children.
However, the research found that whilst there is consensus about the characteristics of an IRO service that is working well, there were challenges facing IROs when it came to translating theory into practice. High case loads, an inability to assert independence and confront poor practice, time constraints, a lack of resources and an expectation to conduct other duties outside the IRO remit, all contributed towards an inconsistent application of the IRO core duties as laid out in the 2011 statutory guidance. IROs expressed concerns that conflicting priorities risked looked after children ceasing to be the priority.
Senior managers were seen as vital in ensuring IROs felt supported and valued, but their commitment was not always evident; failure to deal with high caseloads and to provide effective mechanisms for dealing with concerns were seen as a lack of senior management commitment to ensuring the service operates as intended. In addition, access to external sources of support varied greatly; such as the provision of independent legal advice or a dispute resolution protocol that worked.
Whilst those IROs directly employed by the local authority (95%) enjoyed numerous positive benefits from this association; such as an understanding of local authority context, some argued that this situation did not always allow IROs to work ‘independently’ of the organisation, creating a conflict of interest and in some instances hindering the IRO‘s ability to challenge the local authority on poor practice. Participants described the true test of independence as IROs’ ability to both recognise when to challenge the LA on poor practice and their ability to do so.
The study recognised key elements which would help support an independent approach:
- Demonstrating professional status and respect: by resourcing the service properly; being paid at the same level as a team manager and being openly given 'permission' to challenge.
- Ensuring IROs with the right skills: particularly the ability to communicate with children and young people, and to know how and when to challenge.
- Access to expert advice & resources, including independent legal advice and opportunities for reflective practice.
- Dispute resolution protocols that work, from informal conversations to the escalation of cases to senior management.
- Ensuring ‘child-centred’ IROs,who demonstrate their commitment to each child and work out the best way to seek their views.
- Having a focus on outcomes, and holding agencies to account for their contribution towards these
Dr Hilary Emery, Chief Executive of the National Children's Bureau said:
“Whilst there is clearly a theoretical understanding of what makes an Independent Reviewing Officer service successful, this study indicates that in practice, the IRO role in providing the best possible care planning is yet to be fully realized. We must ensure that IROs are supported to provide the high-quality service that children in the care system need, taking a child-centred approach and making sure that conflicting priorities or inadequate support do not put looked after children at risk of not being the priority.”
“Our research clearly sets out the key ingredients that are required to ensure IROs play an effective independent role that is always focused on achieving the best outcomes for every child in care. We must ensure these are widely promoted and that local authorities learn from each other in understanding how to deliver a high-quality service for all looked after children.”
‘The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England’ – is available at: www.ncb.org.uk/what-we-do/research/research-findings/reports/vulnerable-children-research-reports
The report was undertaken with funding provided by the Nuffield Foundation.
Notes for editors
Press release reference number: PR 14/62
1. About Independent Reviewing Officers: Since 2004 all local authorities have been required to appoint Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) to protect children’s interests throughout the care planning process. The requirement to appoint IROs arose from concerns that looked after children could 'drift', with care plans that either did not meet their needs or were not implemented. Even where care plans had been agreed by a court, they had no ongoing role in ensuring that the local authority put them into practice. Given these concerns, it was decided that every looked after child should have an IRO: an adult with oversight of their care plan and empowered to act on their behalf in challenging the local authority. Although IROs were to be appointed by the local authority, they must be independent from the immediate line management of the case. The effectiveness of the role has subsequently been questioned, particularly IROs' ability to challenge the local authority, to represent the views of children and to widen their focus beyond review meetings. An attempt was made to strengthen the IRO role through statutory guidance: the IRO Handbook implemented in April 2011 (Department for Education and Skills, 2010).
About the National Children's Bureau
The National Children's Bureau (NCB) is a leading charity that for 50 years has been improving the lives of children and young people, especially the most vulnerable. We work with children and for children, to influence government policy, be a strong voice for young people and practitioners, and provide creative solutions on a range of social issues. For more information visit www.ncb.org.uk
About the Nuffield Foundation
The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at www.nuffieldfoundation.org
About the Centre for Child and Family Research (CCFR)
The Centre for Child and Family Research (CCFR) is an independent research unit based in the School of Social, Political and Geographical Sciences at Loughborough University. Established in 2001, CCFR has an international reputation for high quality, policy relevant research.
About Loughborough University
Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.
It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year title in 2008-09 and has been named Sports University of the Year 2013-14 by The Times and Sunday Times. Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and has been voted England's Best Student Experience for six years running in the Times Higher Education league. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.
In 2015 the University will open an additional academic campus in London’s new innovation quarter. Loughborough University in London, based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, will offer postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities.