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The reorganisation of children’s social services in England

Carl Purcell and Danny S.L. Chow, Durham University Business School

Recent child cruelty cases such as that of ‘Baby P’ have increasingly focused media attention upon the childcare responsibilities of social work departments and other organisations involved in the welfare of children and young people. New legislation such as the Children’s Act of 1989 has changed the way in which these organisations operate.

These changes include specific structural modifications such as the separation of adult and child welfare services; but they have also introduced a greater degree of ‘top-down’ management. Academics Carl Purcell and Danny Chow have examined this shift in approach from a more individual style of working to one in which the work ‘on the ground’ is more strictly controlled, looking at possible tensions between the two.

Case study: Westminster Council

Purcell and Chow chose to examine the scope of change via a case study of a local authority’s children’s social work functions. They selected Westminster Council as the subject on the grounds that the relevant department included an unusually high number of longer-serving managers. Although they accept that this approach has limitations, all their interviewees had been with the authority for at least 20 years and were thus able to bring a consistent and long-term perspective to trends in childcare regulation.

The study was based mainly upon primary research involving eight members of the Council’s managerial team – half of them senior managers and the other half working at executive level. All participated in a semi-structured interview program and analysis of their responses, which were anonymous, was aimed at evaluating their beliefs and ideas and how these related to changing structures in children’s social work legislation. The interviews were supported by secondary research drawn from supporting documentation.

Managerialisation: the changing face of social work

The results of the interview process showed that changing legislation has increasingly led to a clearer definition of roles within the social work department. Respondents believed that the separation of child and adult services was logical and had led to increasing specialisation. But this was balanced by the fact that social workers were increasingly becoming more conservative in their approach as a response to what the researchers call the ‘reduced tolerance for failure’, stemming from the recent child cruelty cases and the scrutiny they have engendered.

Considering the results in the context of wider change, the researchers concluded that social care organisation is evolving as existing systems adapt to new government initiatives. Not all of those involved in implementation of childcare, however, were comfortable with the partial loss of flexibility which this implies.

Purcell and Chow recognise that their study covers senior-level employees in one (not necessarily typical) local authority. They conclude that there is much further work to be done on how children’s social services respond to change, especially against a background of increasing economic austerity.