A ray of light in child protection

It is no insult to say there are not enough inspirational leaders among social workers

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The Independent Online

It has been suggested that David Cameron was badly advised to have spoken about social workers in his speech to the Conservative Party conference last week. His staff must have known, it has been said, that two terrible court cases were listed for the week – cases that would once again cause the country to shake its head at the failure of social workers and other agencies to share information and to act on basic warnings, such as a newborn child not seen by a GP.

We disagree. It is precisely because the harrowing cases of children killed by parents are so hard in practice to prevent that the Prime Minister should lend his precious authority to finding ways to raising the capability of child protection services, and should use his public platforms to promote the cause.

The Independent on Sunday first supported a scheme, modelled on Teach First for teachers, to recruit the best graduates into child social work, when it was proposed by Josh MacAlister in October 2010. To their credit, Mr Cameron and Michael Gove took up the idea as quickly as they could, given that it is more important to get it right than to do something for show.

A year ago, we reported that the Government had approved the scheme, now called Frontline, and today we report that 1,000 people have registered in the first week that applications have been open. The recruitment website is explicit that child social work is not a "nice, comfortable office job" and that "99 per cent of us would run in the opposite direction", but these 1,000 applicants are the first wave of the 1 per cent who have the courage to try to turn around children's lives.

That first wave will go through several stages to select just 100 people to start on the scheme next summer. The qualities required have been demonstrated by their absence in the cases of Keanu Williams and Hamzah Khan: teamwork, leadership, optimism and, above all, confidence. What is needed in child protection is people who can stand up to manipulative parents and who have the self-belief to work with the police and the courts.

The numbers of the first Frontline placements may seem small, against a national picture of hundreds of social-worker vacancies and weak management, but this has to be about quality not quantity. It is no insult to existing social workers, most of them doing a difficult job well, to say there simply are not enough inspirational leaders among them. Frontline offers the hope of slowly changing that. Frontline placements will be for only two years, but, if the experience of Teach First is a guide, these recruits are more likely to stay in the profession than those recruited conventionally.

Raising standards of social-worker recruitment is not the only step towards better child protection. To his further credit, Mr Cameron made it clear when he became Prime Minister that increasing adoption rates was important to him. He was committed to reducing the numbers of children in care and improving their lives in care, in foster-care or in adoptive families.

Figures published at the end of last month by the Department for Education show that 3,980 children in care were adopted in 2012-13, which was an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year, and the highest level since figures started to be kept in 1992.

These, and the promising start of the Frontline experiment, are encouraging signs of a more hopeful future; a consolation of sorts after a week of bleak news.