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Wednesday, 01 November 2017

With lowest proportion of children in care, can Northern Irish model be used across UK

Written by The Editorial Team

A newly-appointed professor at the University of Huddersfield has played a key role in an ambitious research project investigating inequalities in child welfare provision throughout the UK. It has now begun a line of enquiry into the possibility that Northern Ireland – despite high levels of deprivation – might provide a model for the type of community support that prevents children going into care.

Paul Bywaters (left) is Emeritus Professor of Social Work at Coventry University, where he was based for 30 years.  Now he joins the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Applied Childhood, Youth and Family Research, where his colleagues include Professor Brid Featherstone (right).

They belong to the team of academics from seven universities that has conducted the Child Welfare Inequalities Project (CWIP), which received initial funding of £557,705 from the Nuffield Foundation.  The project has issued a sequence of briefing papers, including one for each of the four UK countries.

“It’s a very big project with lots of dimensions,” said Professor Bywaters, who was a practicing social worker before he moved into the academic field.

“The standout finding is detailed evidence that children in different places in the UK have very different chances of ending up being in care, away from their parents.  This primarily reflects deprivation – the socio-economic circumstances and conditions of families – but there are also very big differences in policy and practice between the countries and between local authorities within them.”

One of the most unexpected discoveries was that Northern Ireland had a lower proportion of children in care that any other UK country, despite the fact that it has the highest level of child deprivation.  This seeming paradox warranted further investigation, and the Nuffield Foundation had awarded an extra £50,000 to extend the CWIP until summer 2018.

“The situation in Northern Ireland is a really striking finding,” said Professor Bywaters.  “It looks as though it arises because of strong communities and services that focus on working with communities and building community strength rather than the more individualistic focus on risk to individual children, which is the dominant motif elsewhere.”

The CWIP researchers, including Professors Bywaters and Featherstone, will now discover if Northern Ireland is a case study that can offer lessons to the rest of the UK.

The research conducted by the CWIP is principally important for reasons of social justice, said Professor Bywaters.

“Wherever you live, if you are poor you’re more likely to be in care or subject to abuse and neglect, but on top of that, the way services operate and the policies surrounding them make a really big difference.”

Another key consideration was finance, continued Professor Bywaters.  “In England, it costs on average around £50,000 a year to have a child in care.  So it would be a really important policy change if there are ways of giving young people a good childhood without them being in care, shifting resources from removing children to supporting their families.”

Track record

At the University of Huddersfield, Professor Bywaters will continue to work with Professor Featherstone and other members of the Centre, support other research in the School of Human and Health Sciences and deliver public lectures.

“I am delighted to be joining such a strong group with an important track record in this area,” he commented.

Professor Bywater added that the CWIP had made more than 40 presentations to audiences across the UK including the Department for Education and Ofsted in England.

“We are in active conversations with the governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales about ways to respond to the findings.  Specific measures already taken include establishing universal welfare rights and debt advice for families involved with child protection services in Northern Ireland, and collecting new data in Wales that will allow children in need statistics to be linked to neighbourhood deprivation, something not previously possible.”

In Scotland, continued Professor Bywater, evidence has recently been given to a root and branch review of the care system that was established by Nicola Sturgeon.

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