Wed 3 March 2021

The Education Secretary is facing a backlash, with more accusations of cronyism, reports Sam Bright

A group of experts has written to the Education Secretary expressing concern about one of his key appointments.

Twenty-three individuals with both personal and professional experience of the social care system co-signed a letter to Gavin Williamson a fortnight ago, explaining their unhappiness at the individual he has appointed to lead the Government’s independent review of children’s social care in the UK.

Last month, Josh MacAlister was appointed to head-up the review, which will “reshape how children interact with the care system, looking at the process from referral through to becoming looked after. It will address major challenges such as the increase in numbers of looked after children, the inconsistencies in children’s social care practice, outcomes across the country, and the failure of the system to provide enough stable homes for children,” according to the Department for Education.

The experts believe that a review is necessary because “the most vulnerable children in the country are currently being routinely failed by a poorly funded arbitrary system, rife with injustice, which often adds to, rather than alleviates, the burdens of children in poverty and children facing difficulties in their lives”.

However, they expressed frustration at the relative inexperience of MacAlister in the “incredibly complex” field of children’s social care.

MacAlister is the founder and CEO of Frontline, a charity that aims to “transform the life chances of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding people to be leaders in social work and broader society”. Prior to founding Frontline in 2013, MacAlister was a teacher for three-and-a-half years and then an associate fellow at the IPPR think tank.

There are also concerns about MacAlister’s political connections. Indeed, Frontline launched in 2013 with a £1 million grant approved by then Education Secretary Michael Gove. The organisation is currently chaired by Camilla Cavendish, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit under former Prime Minister David Cameron – and now a member of the House of Lords.

However, MacAlister has sought to counter suggestions that he will go easy on the Government. “A few suggest that because I’ve secured Government funding for charitable programmes I won’t be independent,” MacAlister has said. “By this logic, those in local authorities, academia, or elsewhere who secure public funding for projects would fail the independence test.

“If that’s the logic then fair enough but I ask that those who are sceptical to judge me by my actions. Helping to get children a decent and fair start on life has been the focus of my career and that’s what will drive this review.”

Lord Andrew Adonis, another patron and keen supporter of Frontline, was a Cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s Labour Government and has served as a Downing Street advisor on education. MacAlister will permanently stand down from Frontline to lead the review.

Perhaps in an effort to counterbalance MacAlister’s relative lack of experience in this field, the Government has announced that he will be supported by an ‘Experts in Experience’ group – formed of individuals with personal experience of the child social care system.

However, there are even concerns about this process. The letter of complaint to Williamson claims that applicants have been asked to prove both their personal and professional experience in child social care – which is peculiar, given that the ‘Experts in Experience’ group aims to attract “people with lived experience, not professional experience, of care”.

The application form also reportedly invited individuals to submit intimate details of their own personal experiences that “cannot be spoken about, safely, without at least someone with them for moral support”.

It seems that the department listened to this concern and MacAlister tweeted on 4 February to clarify that “people won’t be asked about their personal experience at any point in the process”. However, this clarification was only tweeted out the day before the closing date for submissions. It is also unclear how the ‘Experts in Experience’ group will work, if the applicants are not asked about their personal experience at any point in the process.

“We write to ask you to take our concerns seriously – there is a real risk that without a significant change in approach, this once in a generation review will be a wasted opportunity, and any recommendations arising from it will lack authority, credibility and legitimacy,” the letter to Williamson concluded, signed by academics from multiple universities – including Dr Liz Davies, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at London Metropolitan University – and several independent social workers, both practicing and retired.

“Josh MacAlister was appointed because of his understanding of the challenges facing the system and his experience of implementing innovative solutions,” a Department for Education spokesperson said.

“Both Josh and the review terms of reference have set out how important it will be to engage with families who have experience of the care system. The published application form for the ‘Experts by Experience’ group is explicit that this is just one of the ways the review will do this. Once work on the review begins, the reviewer will set out publicly his plan and approach to this.”

Frontline did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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