Care Review: How wonder and rigour can enable our communities to turn despair into hope

Kieran Breen
Monday, February 15, 2021

The long awaited review into children’s social care has finally been launched and as might have been expected is already subject to “debate” as various stakeholders seek to ensure their views are listened to and heard.

For those with lived experience, this is not a mere academic exercise. Such discussions can open old and current wounds, exacerbate feelings of neglect, hurt and injustice. Which is why it is so important that the voice of care-experienced people has a central role in developing and driving the review.

Yet, we also know as I have written elsewhere, “over the last 30 years there have been numerous laws, policy reviews, enquiries and working groups all designed to improve the care and transitional support offered to care experienced young people” and sadly despite, all this effort, investment and good intention the system is still far from perfect. 

In the words of the children’s commissioner for England: “The truth is while the state can be a great parent – it can also be a really bad one. In fact, sometimes so negligent that it would risk having its children taken into care if it was an actual parent.” 

Why is this? What is going so wrong? Why given all the attention and substantial investment does the care system still fail so many vulnerable children and young people?

I would like to suggest that one of the issues is that often, debates and discussions about the care system get fixated on the way we currently do things. 

Much of the so-called “thinking” about the system is often just a reworking of existing policy and practice. So, you might often hear calls for more participation, a rights-based approach, greater investment, and more social workers. Which might be summarised as saying if only we invested more heavily in what we already do and think, then things would be much better.

There may well be some truth in that, but I would like to suggest that all too often “social services” is based on a top down model of fixing problems. 

Elsewhere, I have noted “that many bigger organisations have become over bureaucratic and systematised, and tied into following targets and key performance indicators and applying agreed procedures. Risk taking is not encouraged and as such there is a tendency to do things the way they have always been done. This often goes hand in hand with top down management structures. In such a set up staff often focus on compliance and not rocking the boat. In addition, there is often relatively few opportunities for the people who are on the receiving end of services to have influence and control over them.”

As Hilary Cottam, in her recent book Radical Help, suggests, 21st century welfare should “start where you are and instead of commanding change or trying to fix you it offers support to grow capability. It includes as many people as possible given that it is our relationships that help us find work, keep healthy and care for one another.” 

This approach suggests a much more organic, relationship-based approach where people become creators rather than just consumers of services and ideas. Do we need to rethink how social services are structured, could we seek to remove red tape, encourage creativity, partnership and decision making at the point of delivery?

When it comes to prevention, the lockdown has clearly shown that across our communities, business sector and local authorities there is a huge amount of creativity and commitment and willingness to step up and support those in need. 

Much of this has been powered by creative use of social media. Neighbours who had never really spoken now belong to community WhatsApp and Facebook groups, where they seek to support each other. 

As the government’s own levelling up agenda suggests, this local knowledge and creativity is a huge asset. If we can build on this goodwill and mobilise it to support families, children and young people it could be a real force for good. In doing so, we will be showing what many people already know, it takes a village to raise a child.

Could we imagine a system of support for at risk and care experienced children which sought to draw much more strongly on these principles - where we relooked at the skills and experiences that you need to support vulnerable and isolated young people? 

Could we imagine, having groups of inspiring, creative, entrepreneurial staff who can easily build relationships with young people, network across business and communities and build partnerships? Might workers like this, offer that spark that young people often need, to see beyond the immediate and turn despair into hope.

Do we also need to work much harder at having an evidence based approach to developing and evaluating services? Do we need to ask questions as to why some councils seem to perform much better than others in similar circumstances? With the commissioning of services now so much part of the job, are we confident that commissioners have the skills and abilities to negotiate good deals, are we confident that providers have the best interest of the children at heart?

Are we confident that councils and charities are willing and able to take risks, to trial new approaches, knowing that some will fail, or is there a tendency to go with the way it has always been done? 

Are we confident that there is an institutional commitment to reflection and learning across the statutory and voluntary providers, or is much reporting, a red tape compliant, box ticking exercise? Are we confident that managers across social services have the skill set so they can motivate, inspire, deal with underperformance and spot and develop talent?

Are we confident that local councillors understand what being a corporate parent means and are passionate in their efforts to ensure “their” looked after children get the best support and provision possible?

If we really are going to review children’s services then we do need to step back from “group thinking” and be prepared to open our minds. This does not mean we do not have our say but does mean we are humble enough to know we all have much to learn from others.

At Leicestershire Cares, we believe that creativity, agility, kindness and empathy are the heart and soul of being able to develop, deliver and adapt effective services. 

In her book The Creativity Leap, Natalie Nixon, set out how humans are hardwired to be creative. 

Inquiry, improvisation and intuition are the building blocks that lead to creativity and these are competencies that can be learnt. Her definition of creativity is the ability to toggle between two different capacities - wonder and rigor. 

Wonder is the ability to be awed and “ask big audacious questions” and rigor is the realm of “discipline, practice, skill, and honing your technique by spending lots of time on tasks.” Creativity requires analytical rigor, according to Nixon, “and analysis requires a capacity for wonder.”

Surely, we all owe it to our children to look at the care system with wonder and rigor, putting aside, “egos, silos and logos” in the knowledge that none of us have all the answers but all of us have the answers. If we can strive to do this whilst, ensuring the best interest of the child and not our organisations are paramount, then I am confident we can offer our children and young people a far brighter future.


Kieran Breen has worked in development in Africa, Latin, Central, North America and the UK. He is currently chief executive of Leicestershire Cares and lectures on youth and global issues at De Montfort University.

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