Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Talking Sense in Scotland

 I was very pleased to see that Donald Henderson, the Scottish Government’s Deputy Director for Care and Protection, speaking at a recent event, is quoted as saying:

“How did the best systems learn? The best systems learn from the mistakes they make, the mistakes that were almost made, or ‘near misses’, and also from the successes. There needs to be an honesty about it.”

I only wish English civil servants and their political bosses would be as quick to acknowledge this very simple and straightforward truth. We learn from being honest about what can go wrong. And in order to allow people to speak freely about mistakes and service failures, we need to make it safe for them to do so.

In order to make child protection safer we need to develop a just reporting culture, in which practitioners are given permission and encouraged to talk about errors. We need to support and respect those who raise safety concerns and stop intimidating whistle blowers. We need to equip practitioners to talk about workplace errors and to analyse and understand how mistakes happen by providing Human Factors training like the training that pilots and other airline employees currently receive. And we need to gain a broad and accurate picture of the types and frequencies of mistakes and service failings by developing better systems – such as Confidential Near Miss Reporting - to create better quality data about the kinds of errors that occur daily in child protection practice.

The Safer Safeguarding Group campaigns on these issues. Join us in our quest for more openness and honesty about mistakes.

Top down improvements - doomed to fail

Trying to justify the Government’s ill-starred Assessment and Accreditation scheme for children’s social workers in England, Lord Nash, a junior minister in the Department for Education, told the House of Lords that:

“Almost one in four councils inspected under Ofsted’s current inspection framework has a judgment which indicates that its practice is inadequate. In the light of that startling statistic, it is critical that the ​Secretary of State is able to bring forward improvement activity that she believes will help raise the standard of social work practice by making clear what standards are expected of children and family social workers and assessing social workers against those improvement standards.

“In other professions, we might expect a professional body to undertake that work but, for now at least, there is no such body for social workers. With the distinct regulatory functions that Social Work England will rightly have, we believe the Secretary of State is in the best position to drive this improvement forward. Indeed, she is the only person who can. In doing so, she will, of course, want to work exceptionally closely with the social work profession.”

One thing his lordship failed to mention is that it was the Government which pulled the funding from the College of Social Work, effectively curtailing the development of a professional body for social work in England.

Another thing, that he might like to reflect on, is his totally unjustified assumption that local authorities get poor Ofsted reports because their social workers lack knowledge and skills. Much more plausible explanations for low standards are under-funding of services, shortages of staff, burdensome management practices, poor IT systems and the stultifying impact of the prevalent culture of fear and blame.

And why a politician like the Secretary of State, who happens to be an accountant by profession and who probably knows very little about children’s social work, is the “only person” able to drive improvement forward is a complete mystery to me. Driving improvement forward is something we should all be doing, especially those of us who deliver services day after day. They are the only people who really know what happens at the front line. The idea that a small elite of government ministers and their advisers know what’s best is a naive fallacy, the pursuit of which will only result in failure and despair.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Knowledge

In recent months, my blog has been read more in the USA, Russia and France than it has been in Britain. I’m very pleased to have a thriving international audience, but having lots of non-British readers is challenging. In particular, it behoves me to explain some of the quaint and idiocyncratic, not to say bizarre, things we get up to in the place some people still like to call the United Kingdom.

That brings me to The Knowledge.

If you want to drive a black taxi cab in London you have to take a test. It’s called The Knowledge. The Knowledge is one of the most difficult tests in the world. You have to study for years to memorise the city’s 25,000 streets and the shortest routes between them.

It may sound like a good idea to require every taxi driver in London to have intricate knowledge of the city’s labyrinthine streets. But a little black box that costs less than £100 and which you stick to the windscreen of your taxi makes The Knowledge just a little bit unnecessary. It’s called a Satnav or a GPS.

It’s all too easy for tests designed to ensure professional standards to become unnecessary or irrelevant. Sometimes the people who think up the tests have the best motives. They want a better service, more knowledgeable personnel, more satisfied ‘customers’. But the content of the test must be justified by being strictly related to the knowledge and skills which are required to achieve clearly defined tasks competently. The test mustn’t become just a hurdle that people have to jump in order to get into the profession. It mustn’t become just a way of keeping people out. And it mustn’t become a con trick to mislead members of the public that something is being done to improve professional standards when it isn’t.

That brings me to the government’s ill-fated Assessment and Accreditation scheme, which is currently being rolled-out for children’s social workers in England. As I’ve said before the Government provides no detail about where its so-called knowledge and skills statements, on which the accreditation scheme is based, come from and no justification for them. And it provides no proposals for how these knowledge and skills statements can be reviewed, improved and kept up to date in future. So, its tests are really pretty arbitrary. Rather than being a basis for improving the safety and quality of practice it is beginning to look rather like The Knowledge – a difficult test to pass but not really necessary.

Heather Wakefield, head of local government at Unison, has recently described the Assessment and Accreditation scheme as “ill-thought out” saying that “… it threatens to make things worse, not better. It doesn’t accurately assess the work staff do, and could prove the final straw for many experienced employees, who may well vote with their feet and leave. 

“Ministers,” she says, “should think again, and instead of making dedicated employees take this ill-conceived test, provide more resources to enable them to do their jobs properly.”

I say spot on, Heather! If ever a nail was hit on the head, then you have hit this nail smack on.

This ill-conceived test is going to do nothing except create a little industry about passing it. It’s a distraction, an irrelevance, a waste of time. And it is fundamentally misleading. It doesn’t make practice safer. It just makes people jump through hoops to stay where they were in the first place and consumes time and resources which could be much better used.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Ofsted – beyond the pale

The body which inspects children’s social care services in England, Ofsted, is primarily an inspector of schools. For reasons which have never been entirely clear to me, the responsibility for children’s social care inspection was passed to Ofsted more than ten years ago. I think Ofsted has never really got to grips with that responsibility. It continues to be more about judgement and blame and less about analysis and improvement than it should be. It isn’t helping ‘failing’ authorities improve and it seems at times to be basking in their ‘failures’. Too often Ofsted wags its judging finger and proclaims: “This is wrong, put it right”. Why things are wrong or how they can be put right is something that we don’t hear a lot about from Ofsted. Sadly, I think it doesn’t know.

There’s a lot wrong with Ofsted. It’s director of social care inspection, Eleanor Schooling, is a former teacher. She may know a lot about local government, but she has never had to stand on a doorstep on a cold winter’s night to explain that she’s calling about an allegation of child abuse. I think that creates a credibility problem.

Ofsted’s former head, the combative Sir Michael Wilshaw, is also a former teacher. He never gave me the impression that he understood much about children’s social care. His main message seemed to be that good schools were good because they had good head teachers. Ergo, children’s services departments would be good if only they had good directors. ‘Simplistic’ is the word that comes to mind.

Anyway, they have now replaced Sir Michael with somebody, Amanda Spielman, who is neither a teacher nor a social worker but an accountant! It was salutary to hear the House of Commons Education Committee comment that:

“Ms Spielman’s responses on child protection were particularly troubling and did not inspire confidence that she grasped the importance of Ofsted’s inspections in preventing children being held at risk through service failure.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement!

Now we learn that Ofsted is planning to focus its schools inspections by eavesdropping on ‘unsubstantiated gossip’ on Twitter and Facebook to help decide whether an inspection is required.

Now that is getting seriously silly. Whoever came up with this cunning wheeze should be directed towards some sort of training course in how to act sensibly! And we have to ask ourselves the $64,000 question: “Should an organisation which seems to have lost its grip of reality continue to have responsibility for inspecting safety critical children’s services, where service failings do not just result in setting the tongues of Internet trolls wagging, but can actually result in children dying when they shouldn’t. 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

No good options?

Although it contains few surprises, there is a great deal that is important in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s report of the Inquiry into Children’s Social Care in England, entitled No Good Options.

The report is nicely summarised in the Guardian.

Four main themes emerge from the report.

Firstly, the inquiry found that resources are not keeping pace with demand for services and that, as a consequence, early intervention services are being cut back. Children’s needs had often grown significantly before any support is put in place, resulting in more children being taken into care with the paradoxical consequence of higher costs being incurred as a result.

The report describes a very worrying national funding picture in England, a finding which is confirmed by the Local Government Association, which has warned that councils face a £1.9bn funding gap for children’s services by 2020.

Secondly wide variations in practice and spending between local authorities are noted. The inquiry found that rates of looked after children varied from a low of 22 per 10,000 of the population in one authority to a high of 164 per 10,000 in another. The local authority with the highest rate of looked after children had seven times the rate of the lowest. Likewise, it was found that local authority spending per child in need ranged from £340 in the lowest spending local authority to £4,970 in the highest. The inquiry was unable to establish the reasons for these variations and the report calls for research to discover the causes.

Thirdly, the inquiry found that high turnover of social workers and multiple care placements had a profoundly adverse impact on the stability of services and the quality of care. In some areas agency staff were found to account for more than 40 per cent of children’s social workers. Poor retention of children’s social workers was said to contribute to ‘churn’ in services.

Finally, the Inquiry found that children and young people’s participation in the services they receive was patchy. In many places children in care are not routinely involved in decisions made about them. In some cases, children do not know the reasons why they are looked after by the local authority.

While the report’s findings are sound and hard-hitting, its weakest section, in my view, is the one that considers what needs to happen next. The report’s recommendations to Government are peppered with anaemic phrases such as ‘conduct a review’, ‘incentivise investment in early intervention’, ‘strengthen duties’, ‘consult’, ‘commission an inquiry’, ‘develop a strategy’, ‘adopt a more flexible approach (to intervening in failing children’s services)’ and ‘establish a national program for developing senior leaders’. In stating the problems, the report pulls no punches, but the anodyne conclusions come as a considerable disappointment. It is almost as if the report’s authors had run out of steam.

I would have liked to see a real challenge to the Government on the issue of funding. It is simply not possible to continue to under-fund services while taking no steps to revise the offering or manage increasing demand. The inevitable result will be a thinner and thinner spread of provision with the eventual breakdown of services an ever-looming prospect. It doesn’t need a ‘review’ of funding to work that one out and the Government should not be pandered to on this issue. Rather ministers need to be confronted with the unsustainable situation they are creating and be challenged to change course urgently.

The issue of variations in practice and spending also requires urgent action to discover what is going on. Commissioning an independent inquiry into this issue, as the report recommends, sounds too much like kicking the issue into the long grass. And, although independent research may be useful, it is likely to take years to complete. The only route to a quick response to this issue is for the Department for Education and local authorities to take an urgent look at what is happening themselves and to put in hand actions to address the causes of the variation forthwith. If a motor manufacturer discovered huge variations in the quality of the brakes of its cars, it would not be satisfactory to suggest setting-up an independent inquiry and waiting a few years for it to report. The issue would need to be addressed immediately and with gusto. Children and young people in need of protection deserve no less.

Likewise, rather than the report’s ponderous recommendation of developing a ‘strategy’, there should be no delay in setting in-hand actions to reduce ‘churn’. It takes little reflection to list improvements which are likely to result in greater retention of children’s social workers, few of which are currently being pursued. Of great importance is ensuring that motivators, such as job satisfaction, recognition and opportunities for personal growth, are designed into social work jobs and nurtured in everyday practice. Absolutely crucial is attacking the blame culture, so that children’s social workers and others feel safe in talking openly about individual errors and service failures. That is a precondition of creating organisations which learn and improve rather than comply and atrophy.

And it takes more than a few nudges from central government to ‘incentivise’ local authorities to “… improve participation practices so that vulnerable children play a meaningful role in their care”. What is required is a fundamental change in culture which puts children and their experiences at the centre of service design, rather than prioritising management fads and government obsessions and clever wheezes thought up by clever people.

It is that little word ‘culture’ which is so starkly missing from the recommendations of this report. But thinking about how culture can be changed is the beginning of a journey to a place where there are some good options. Doing the right thing when resources are stretched painfully thinly is never easy. But inventive and responsive services, which place children’s needs and wants at the centre and adapt and learn, will cope much better with a harsh environment than heavy-footed, top-down-bureaucracies with their ethos of authority, compliance and blame.

Administrative Support for Child Protection Social Work

In the 1970s and 1980s social workers had more administrative support. I remember that in one job just one colleague and I shared a full-time secretary. I can still remember her bashing out my court reports on an elderly Imperial manual typewriter. We dictated our records into tape machines and she typed them up too. She also answered all incoming phone calls, booked appointments and dealt with callers if we were out of the building. I can’t say I ever found administration easy, but this arrangement made it very tolerable.
In recent times, it has become the norm in Britain for children’s social workers to provide much of their own administrative support. Records and reports are typed by social workers directly into computers. Correspondence, appointments, statistical returns and routine administration are often also the responsibility of practitioners. In 2009 researchers from Loughborough University [1] noted an increase in administrative and indirect activities undertaken by social workers and a shortage of administrative support. Other surveys have produced similar findings [2].

Most people who go into children’s social work do so because they want to work with people, not to do paperwork, computer work and other administration. Conceiving the social worker’s task primarily in administrative terms, as the architects of the Integrated Children’s System did [3], is a tragic mistake, which has untold negative ramifications for employee-motivation, organisational morale and the safety and quality of services.

So, it is music to my ears that the lessons of the past appear to be being learned, at least in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. There an experiment has been undertaken with highly skilled administrators or PAs being assigned to social workers in a ratio of three social workers to one PA. [4]

This is said to have resulted in a decrease in the time social workers spend on administrative tasks (from 36% to 14%) and an increase in the time they spend with children and families (from 34% to 58%). It is also reported that there has been more than an 80% reduction in short-term staff sickness and decreases in stress levels experienced by social workers. The overall team environment is said to have improved. Not only that but the researchers conclude that providing social workers with PAs is very cost effective. They calculate that there are notional savings of about £9,000 per social worker because of reductions in unproductive time spent in undertaking inappropriate administrative tasks. It is argued that these savings are likely to increase over time because of lower rates of staff sickness absence and improved retention of social workers.

It is always gratifying when it turns out that doing things in the best way is also the most cost effective way. Children’s services managers should be learning from this research, not only taking on board its specific findings, but also embracing an overall approach which focuses on exploring how jobs like children’s social worker can be designed to make it easier for those who do them to do them well.


[1] Lisa Holmes, Samantha McDermid, Anna Jones and Harriet Ward. “How Social Workers Spend Their Time: An Analysis of the Key Issues that Impact on Practice pre- and post Implementation of the Integrated Children’s System” Department for Children, Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR087 2009.

[2] See for example reports of the survey conducted by the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers in 2012:

[3] Sue White, David Wastell, Karen Broadhurst and Chris Hall, “When policy o’erleaps itself: The ‘tragic tale’ of the Integrated Children’s System”, Critical Social Policy, July 29, 2010,

[4] Katy Burch, Colin Green, Steve Merrell, Viv Taylor and Sue Wise, “Social Care
Innovations in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Evaluation Report” March 2017
Department for Education, Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme Evaluation Report no. 23

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Corbyn on Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse

I was sorry to hear what Britain’s Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, recently said about the need for mandatory reporting of child abuse, albeit focused on child protection in sport.

I agree that anyone who suspects child abuse and neglect should always report it. And I agree that this should be reflected in policy and guidance. But that is very different from the arguments of those who support mandatory reporting, who want to see a criminal offence of failing to report, backed by criminal sanctions, probably substantial sentences of imprisonment.

The most likely impact of introducing criminal sanctions for failing to report, targeted at people who work with children, will be to heighten the already prevalent culture of fear and blame surrounding working with child abuse and neglect.

I want people who have concerns about a child to feel free to discuss those concerns with colleagues and managers to determine what should be done in the best interests of the child. I don’t want professionals to be faced with a situation in which they feel that their first priority is to ensure that they themselves are protected from prosecution.

The reality of child abuse and neglect is that usually those who first notice it in a particular family or situation are never quite sure about what they are seeing. Can it really be that this child is being abused? Our natural first reaction is often “surely not”. At that point what is required is not the threat of prison if you happen to make the wrong decision. What is required is the right kind of support from people with more experience and insight to reflect on, and tease out, what is really happening. If then abuse seems to be likely, a referral can be made with confidence.

Imagine a teacher who discovers that a child in her class, about whom she has had no previous concerns, is being assessed for abuse and neglect. Will she feel free to speak openly about her past dealings with the child and family if there is a realistic prospect of her being prosecuted, especially if, as is often the case with the benefit of hindsight, things that appeared to have had an innocent explanation now turn out to be sinister? More likely she will resort to taking legal advice and where possible exercise her right to silence and, of course, that will do nothing to help the child.

And, if there is an inquiry into what went wrong in that case, will that teacher feel confident in cooperating fully with that inquiry and openly talking about what may be seen as her own mistakes and failings? If she risks punishment, I think not. The outcome will be that she will remain stumm and, as a result, important learning will not take place, the inevitable consequence of a culture of blame and fear.

Mandatory reporting, backed by the threat of criminal sanction, does not make children safer. It just gives those who want someone to punish when things go wrong some easy targets.