Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Child protection staff shortages in Birmingham

The Birmingham Mail reports that Birmingham Children’s Services has more than 150 vacancies and now has to pay premium rates to attract agency social workers.

It’s not surprising the Birmingham is having trouble. Not only is there a national shortage of suitably qualified and experienced people, but the very public bashing that the authority has taken from Ofsted and the Government is hardly the kind of advertising campaign that will result in skilled people hammering on the door.

The general approach to children’s services departments that are in difficulties is one of blame and shame. Inspectors, civil servants, politicians and the media wag their fingers and waive their big sticks. The unrealistic expectation is that the local people who are trying to run the service will be suitably chastened and will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The reality is, of course, very different. Few people are motivated by a damning Ofsted report. Few people are encouraged by being told that they work for a failing authority. Few people want to shoulder unmanageable burdens or put themselves at risk of being blamed further. Inevitably some will want to move on.

And so a downward spiral begins as vacancies and workloads shoot up, and morale plummets.

I think that we should treat children’s services departments that get into trouble more like sick patients and less like wrongdoers. At the first sign of trouble someone should be getting drips into veins, making sure that there is a good flow of oxygen and standing by with life saving drugs. Fulminating and jumping up and down with indignation might make some people feel good, but it does nothing to improve services or to ensure that children are safe.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A fair day's pay ... ?

I have to wonder what anybody could do to justify a annual salary of more than £340,000. But that is what Somerset County Council is reported to have been paying its Director of Children’s Services.

I say ‘have been’ because apparently they are letting him go.

I had a look at vacancies for some other jobs in Somerset. They offer a newly qualified social worker £27,323, a social worker who has completed one year’s employment since qualification £31,160 and an experienced social worker £34,894.

Somerset County Council are quoted as saying that it has been decided to let the Director go because "faster improvement” has not come about. Sounds like the council, which is rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted and subject to an ‘improvement notice’
was putting a lot of eggs in the dynamic-leader-super-hero-turnaround-wiz-kid basket.

I read with interest that the post of Director of Children’s Services in Somerset will now be covered by the Chief Executive “for the time being”. I find that puzzling. If it is the sort of job that can only be done by someone who is paid £340,000 per annum (which is more than £1000 per day), how can it be ‘covered’ by someone who has another full-time, and presumably very demanding, job?

Maybe they should just have a permanent vacancy and use the whole salary package to employ 10 more experienced social workers! I bet that would have more positive impact on children’s lives.

Fears of a deliberate cover-up in Rotherham?

BBC News quotes the Chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz MP, as saying that revelations about files that can no longer be found gives rise to public suspicion of a deliberate cover-up of the child sex abuse scandal in Rotherham.

A Home Office funded researcher, based in Rotherham between 2000 and 2002 and who suspected that there were serious failings in responding to child sexual exploitation in the town, has given evidence to the Committee saying that someone had entered her office (apparently using a security code) and removed her files.

It is chilling to think that something like that may have happened. Nothing could be more damaging to the safe operation of services than deliberately obfuscating serious failings. Hiding weaknesses increases the probability of more things going wrong at a later date.

If there has been a cover-up, it is not just the safety of children in the past that has been compromised, but the safety of children and young people now and in the future.

Someone needs to get to the bottom of this quickly.

Friday, 17 October 2014

You couldn’t make it up…

If it were a novel about a large city struggling to deliver children’s services, people would say that it lacked credibility. But it has actually happened; Birmingham’s new director has quit .... before she’s even started.

That’s the kind of thing that seems to haunt organisations that are down on their luck. One bad event seems to lead to another: a vicious downward spiral, perhaps.

Part of the problem is that ‘leaders’ are probably looking outside the organisation for a quick fix; searching possibly for a magic bullet of a director, a turnaround wiz kid, an expert in ‘repositioning’ and ‘transformation’, 're-engineering' perhaps. The clichés could go on and on.

The truth is that changing a few posh bums on a few posh seats is unlikely to do more than make money for the people who paint signs on doors. I bet there are plenty of people who already work for Birmingham who could tell us a lot about what is wrong – if they were allowed to do so. I bet they could put a lot right, if they were allowed to.

But they won’t be allowed to, because their leaders see them as part of the problem, not part of the solution. I expect they know that and so they will be keeping their heads down, mired in learned helplessness waiting for something to happen…

In the meantime the well-paid occupants of the big plush offices come and go.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

‘Baby P: The Untold Story’ - a forthcoming TV documentary

There’s a new documentary about the death of Baby Peter Connelly, which promises to be very interesting. I understand that it will focus on the way in which individual practitioners were blamed for Peter’s death while powerful organisations and institutions escaped proper scrutiny.

If you can receive BBC1 TV then tune in at 8.30pm on Monday 27th October. The programme is called ‘Baby P: The Untold Story’. I’ll certainly be watching it and commenting subsequently in this blog.  

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Birmingham – are the responses ‘inadequate’ as well?

Birmingham Children’s Services, and other agencies engaged in child protection and safeguarding across Britain’s second city, are much troubled. Inadequate, inadequate, inadequate is the verdict of Ofsted and others who have tried to evaluate services. It’s a sad tale.

But after all that has been written and said, I’m still not clear why multiple failures have occurred in Birmingham and not elsewhere. To my mind all the reports do is list things that have gone wrong. They do not analyse why things have gone wrong and look at the underlying causes.

The latest report is from the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board, the co-ordinating body that has itself been rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.

The Board’s independent chair is reported in the Birmingham Mail as ‘listing’ (yes more listing) a variety of things that are wrong, and the Lead Member for Children’s Services (an elected local councillor) is quoted as saying that the report details issues that “… we are already aware of” and that “… we now know quite clearly what needs to be done”

To my mind this sort of mechanical approach to improvement – ‘x is wrong, don’t do x in future’ – is a denial. Obviously it can be painful, and it is certainly hard work, for people to look at the underlying causes, but unless that is done the problems will just re-emerge in another form on another day.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Ofsted IS part of the problem?

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog I have never minced my words – often harsh ones - about Ofsted. Now it turns out I’m not the only one! Advisers at the Department for Education are apparently hanging their heads in despair about the organisation, as a leaked memo makes clear.

I can’t comment on how accurate Ofsted’s school inspections are. All I know is that it is hard not to have too low a view of most of Ofsted’s inspections of child protection and children’s services. And I was particularly struck by Dominic Cummings’ comment in his memo that Ofsted has “… missed massive child abuse scandals under their noses, which they are very lucky not to have been hammered for”.

But my main preoccupation is Ofsted’s inspection reports and what they reveal about the organisation and the inspections it conducts. The reports are frequently formulaic and naïve. Many of the recommendations they make are unrealistic. The reports invariably lack an analytic approach. On too many occasions they blame but do not explain. They frequently judge but do not identify routes to improvement.

And I would love to know what Ofsted’s methodology is based on. When I wrote to them asking some straightforward questions I was shocked to find out that there doesn’t seem to be much methodology – rather just a bit of arbitrary accepted practice.

There is no evidence at all that the whole expensive Ofsted shebang has had any positive effect in improving standards in children’s services or in making children and young people any safer.