There are some jobs that attract little attention but matter a lot. As I discovered in my second day on the frontline recently, the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) is just that.
IROs are independent social workers, introduced just under a decade ago to make sure the child in care gets what she is promised and to make sure her voice is heard. As one child said, my IRO ‘makes me feel like a person, not a number’.
It’s clear from what children say that when this works, it is brilliantly effective. Yet the role is fraught with difficulty. IROs have to simultaneously challenge the local authority and sit within it. They have to form a relationship with social workers, foster carers and health visitors that is close enough to build trust but detached enough to challenge and, if necessary, escalate their concerns. Like the other children’s professionals I’ve shadowed, they are run off their feet with high caseloads, unexpected demands and piles of admin but also somehow have to find enough time for the child.
The IRO chairs regular progress reviews with all of the adults involved in a child’s life. The baby I met had only been in care for a short time. As well as covering practical matters (is she healthy, happy, safe?) the IRO also probed the foundations they were collectively laying for the child’s life. Does she have a memory box? Have we kept the toys her birth family left for her? Watching her sleeping, it struck me that decades from now she will have memories because her IRO, who she may not even remember meeting, took the time to preserve them.
So many of the challenges that face IROs also confront social workers. High caseloads mean they are pulled in every direction and far too much time is spent in the office typing up case-notes – a tragic use of time for experienced, skilled professionals who want and need to spend more time talking to children.
I drew a few conclusions from watching IROs at work. I share the view of most IROs that being part of the local authority matters, but I also have concerns about independence and I would like to see IROS given: separate management structures, sufficient seniority to challenge, and access to their own legal advice if they need to take on the decision of the local authority.
I have also been struck in subsequent conversations about the lack of awareness amongst MPs, councillors and even lead members for children about what IROs are and why they matter. This has to be a priority if they are to get the resources and professional clout that they need.
Finally, the more time I spend with the children’s workforce the more I marvel that burnout, which is a significant problem, isn’t even greater given the pressure they have to deal with. Recently I visited Singapore where there is a well-resourced, structured career route for teachers that enables them to move between frontline work, research and policy development over the course of their careers. Increasingly, I am wondering why we don’t do this in the UK, not just for teachers but for the wider children’s workforce.
Lisa Nandy MP is the Shadow Children’s Minister
You can read part one of “Getting out of the Westminster bubble” here.