Independent Reviewing Officers not yet having desired impact on care planning

31 March 2014

Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) are prevented from realising high quality planning for children in care due to the challenges of making the role work in practice, according to a research published today by the National Children's Bureau and the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.

All children in care have an IRO, an adult who has oversight of their care plan and is empowered to act on their behalf in challenging the local authority. The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, confirmed that IROs can have a positive impact on ensuring care plans are properly reviewed, and can contribute to improved support and services for looked after children.

However, researchers also concluded there are challenges facing IROs when it comes to translating theory into practice. High case loads, an inability to assert independence and confront poor practice, time constraints, a lack of resources and an expectation to conduct other duties outside the IRO remit, all contribute towards an inconsistent application of IRO core duties as laid out in the 2011 statutory guidance. IROs expressed concerns that conflicting priorities risked looked after children ceasing to be the priority.

Senior managers were seen as vital in ensuring IROs felt supported and valued, but their commitment was not always evident. Failure to deal with high caseloads and to provide effective mechanisms for dealing with concerns were seen as a lack of senior management commitment to the service. In addition, access to external sources of support such as the provision of independent legal advice or a dispute resolution protocol, varied greatly. 

IROs directly employed by the local authority (95%) enjoyed some positive benefits from this association; such as an understanding of local authority context. But some argued this prevented IROs from working 'independently' of the authority, creating a conflict of interest and in some instances hindering the IRO's ability to challenge on poor practice. Participants described the true test of independence as IROs' ability to recognise when to challenge the local authority on poor practice AND their ability to do so.

The study recognised key elements which would help support an independent approach:

  • Demonstrating professional status and respect: by resourcing the service properly; being paid at the same level as a team manager and being openly given 'permission' to challenge.
  • Ensuring IROs with the right skills: particularly the ability to communicate with children and young people, and to know how and when to challenge.
  • Access to expert advice and resources, including independent legal advice and opportunities for reflective practice.
  • Dispute resolution protocols that work, from informal conversations to the escalation of cases to senior management.
  • Ensuring 'child-centred' IROs, who demonstrate their commitment to each child and work out the best way to seek their views.
  • Having a focus on outcomes, and holding agencies to account for their contribution towards these.

Dr Hilary Emery, Chief Executive of the National Children's Bureau said:

"While there is clearly a theoretical understanding of what makes an Independent Reviewing Officer service successful, this study indicates that in practice, the IRO role in providing the best possible care planning is yet to be fully realized. We must ensure that IROs are supported to provide the high-quality service that children in the care system need, taking a child-centred approach and making sure that conflicting priorities or inadequate support do not put looked after children at risk of not being the priority."

"Our research clearly sets out the key ingredients that are required to ensure IROs play an effective independent role that is always focused on achieving the best outcomes for every child in care. We must ensure these are widely promoted and that local authorities learn from each other in understanding how to deliver a high-quality service for all looked after children."

The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England
Download full report (PDF)

Download research summary (PDF)

What are Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs)?

Since 2004 all local authorities have been required to appoint Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) to protect children's interests throughout the care planning process. The requirement to appoint IROs arose from concerns that looked after children could 'drift', with care plans that either did not meet their needs or were not implemented. Even where care plans had been agreed by a court, they had no ongoing role in ensuring that the local authority put them into practice. Given these concerns, it was decided that every looked after child should have an IRO:an adult with oversight of their care plan and empowered to act on their behalf in challenging the local authority.

IROs are appointed by the local authority, but must be independent from the immediate line management of the case. The effectiveness of the role has subsequently been questioned, particularly IROs' ability to challenge the local authority, to represent the views of children and to widen their focus beyond review meetings. An attempt was made to strengthen the IRO role through statutory guidance: the IRO Handbook implemented in April 2011 (Department for Education and Skills, 2010).

See also

The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England
Download full report (PDF)

Download reseach summary (PDF)