Lessons for England from Scots’ review

Fiona Simpson
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Fiona Duncan, chair of the care review in Scotland, offers advice for English counterparts on key issues for probe into care system.

Fiona Duncan: care experiences were central to the Independent Care Review in Scotland. Picture: Matthew McGoldrick
Fiona Duncan: care experiences were central to the Independent Care Review in Scotland. Picture: Matthew McGoldrick

In February 2020, the team behind the Independent Care Review in Scotland produced The Promise – which sets out over 124 pages what needs to happen to ensure thousands of children, young people and families in and on the edge of care in Scotland “grow up loved, safe and respected”.

The Promise, which includes 80 recommendations for change alongside a 10-year implementation plan, received cross-party praise for its “unprecedented” scope and pledge to put looked-after children and care-experienced adults at the heart of the “radical overhaul”.

Chair of the review, Fiona Duncan, tells CYP Now why the the role and subsequent task of implementing The Promise is “the greatest responsibility” of her career – and could offer important pointers to her counterpart south of the border following the recent launch of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England.

Decades of experience

Aside from her role as chair of the Scottish review, Duncan is chief executive of grant-making foundation Corra following two decades of experience in the voluntary sector in Scotland and overseas.

In January, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson appointed Josh MacAlister, founder of Frontline social care, as chair of the English review. MacAlister has already faced questions over his independence due to funding granted to Frontline from the Department for Education.

Duncan highlights that when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the “independent, root and branch review” in October 2016, it had already been agreed that it would be hosted by Strathclyde University “as an organisation entirely independent from government”.

“I think it was that independence that enabled me to establish governance arrangements that served the care community and reported to the care community,” Duncan says. “It allowed me to devise a methodology to explore all relevant areas of structure, policy and practice without any reference or approval from any organisation or individual and publish wide-ranging conclusions that represent fully the lives of children, young people, families in and on the edge of care without fear or favour,” she says.

However, Duncan suggests criticism is inevitable, saying “the way that you set out is not always going to meet everybody’s hopes and aspirations”.

“I’m not sure any of the criticism did us anything other than good,” she adds, explaining that an initial pledge by the review team to consider “what the best care system in the world looks like” was a “misstep”. It led to concerns that “if Scotland built the best care system in the world, the chances are that more children would be removed from their homes and put into that care system”.

Gathering stories

The key to negating such criticism throughout the three-year review – which Duncan explains took a year longer than planned due to extensive work in gathering stories and experiences from 3,000 care-experienced people – was a “central focus” on those who are or had been in or on the edge of care.

So far, MacAlister has announced the use of an Experts by Experience group which was inundated with more than 1,000 applications for between 10 and 15 spots on the panel.

He has also pledged that there will be “plenty more ways for people to have their voices heard”.

Duncan says that without including such voices in the Scottish review, “then there would have been no point to it at all”, adding that at least half of each team that worked across the four stages of the review was made up of people with care experience.

This included a team of co-chairs looking at individual issues including love, health and wellbeing and stigma, as part of the third stage of the review called “The Journey” – a deep dive into the issues cited as most prominent by the care community. This approach has been adopted at the organisation delivering The Promise, Duncan adds.

Every published document was peer-reviewed by people with care experience, including 12 composite stories aimed at encapsulating the shared experiences of children in care which were central to the review, Duncan adds.

“Stories children had told the review were analysed for commonality of themes and those were written into 12 stories and taken back to children who were asked whether they recognised themselves and whether the words were right,” she says.

The chair hails them as one of the biggest successes of the review borne from the challenge of sharing “the most intimate, personal, sometimes traumatic, experiences” while protecting the identity of the subject.

“I think those were done with such care, sensitivity and respect to the care community, and to children, that those challenges were overcome in a way that has added something better to review,” she says.


However, despite citing “acceptance of the review by the care community” as its main success, Duncan is adamant that this means nothing “unless The Promise is implemented”.

Duncan confirms that she contacted MacAlister on Twitter to congratulate him on securing the position which led to his team accepting an offer for advice.

“I’m hoping when he tells me where he’s at with his thinking, that I’ll be able to offer him some advice but I’m not quite sure what his plans are and what he’s looking for,” she says, describing her own challenge as “the most important thing I’ve ever been asked to do in my life”.

She credits the thousands of care-experienced people who participated in the review as the source of its success, hailing the “generosity of reliving trauma in the hope you can change the world for people you have never met”.


During the review process, the authors “wiped away” traditional terminology used with the children’s social care system, branding it “bureaucratic” and stigmatising, Duncan says.

“We’re absolutely adamant that there isn’t a care system, there are 44 pieces of legislation, 19 pieces of secondary legislation and three international conventions governing this thing that we call a system.

“But all those bureaucrats who have their rulebooks, and have their acronyms and have their timeframes, they just stigmatise children and families.

“If you’re a looked-after child, you are called ‘LAC’, and children talk like LAC means ‘less-than’ – so the words are awful, we’ve really challenged the language.

“Children don’t talk about going to respite, they talk about going to stay with a friend for a couple of days, so there is an awful lot of language that’s entrenched that should just be wiped away because it doesn’t serve children and families well.”

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