Thursday, 12 November 2015

Number of children on child protection plans in England

The BBC reports that Blackpool has the highest proportion in England of children subject to child protection plans, three times the national rate.

Other areas with high rates are Nottingham, Coventry, Salford and the Isle of Wight, while Milton Keynes, Essex, Wokingham, Somerset, Windsor and Bath are all said to have low rates.

I am not sure how much any of this is ‘news’ because some variation in rates between different local authority areas (with different demographic profiles and different levels of social deprivation) is inevitable.

It may be, however, that it is differing practices rather than differing profiles that account for some of the variation and it would be useful to see if that was the case and to understand why. Perhaps Ofsted could conduct some thematic research on that issue? I’m not going to hold my breath, though, because I expect they are far too busy with other things.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Retaining child protection social workers

I have just discovered an excellent document that everyone concerned with recruiting, retaining and managing social workers (and related professionals working in child protection) needs to read and understand.  Published by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust, this highly informative briefing can be downloaded at:

While I was aware from government published figures [1] of high turnover rates in children’s social work (17% for all of England and above 20% in the London area), it was only by reading this briefing that I became aware of research by Curtis et al which found that social workers remain in their professions for a very short time, compared with other professions. They found that the average working life for a social worker is under 8 years, compared to 16 years for a nurse, 25 years for a doctor and 28 years for a pharmacist.

That is a stunning and alarming statistic that I (and also I suspect a great many other people) seem to have missed since it was originally published more than five years ago. And the implications are huge. If social work careers were comparable to nurses we would need to train only half the current number required; and if they were comparable to doctors, we would only need to train one third as many.

I have always believed that retention is the key to staff shortages in children’s social work. It seems that I was right.

Returning to the briefing, a very important table on page 10 summarises positive and negative organisational factors that influence staff retention.

Negative factors which militate against staff retention include: a culture of blame, lack of clarity about roles, micro-management, high workloads, high levels of bureaucracy, poor resources and support, poor or infrequent supervision, lack of training opportunities, lack of management attention to staff welfare and little opportunity to work directly with families and children.

Not surprisingly positive factors that predispose to staff retention are mostly the direct opposites of these negative factors, although I particularly liked the way the report expresses the alternative to the blame culture: a ‘learning organisation’ with ‘a sense of collective responsibility’.

This is a report about staff retention and recruitment, but I think it could equally be a report about good management in general – do the opposite to each of those negative factors above and you are likely to have an organisation that not only retains its staff, but also achieves high quality by meeting the needs of service users in an efficient, safe and focused way.

More organisations should try it!!


[1] “Children’s Social Work Workforce during year ending 30 September 2014” SFR 07/2015, 25 February 2015

[2] Curtis L, Moriarty J and Netten A (2010), ‘The expected working
life of a social worker’. British Journal of Social Work 40(5),

Monday, 2 November 2015

2025 – an outsourcing odyssey

Let’s wind forward 10 years to 2025.

A children’s charity called ProtectOutsourceOrg* has just gone into liquidation. Commentators in the press are pointing to the similarities to the Kids Company debacle, ten years previously in 2015. It seems that for years there have been concerns about ProtectOutsourceOrg, but little or no action has been taken and the government has continued to fund it. Various people are now coming out of the woodwork to say that they have been telling people for years that it would all end in tears, just as happened with Kids Company.

There is one big difference, however, between the fictional ProtectOutsourceOrg and Kids Company. Whereas Kids Company provided children's services which were essentially preventative, ProtectOutsourceOrg was one of the charities which had secured a contract to provide child protection services, as part of the British government’s outsourcing initiative. On the day it went bankrupt hundreds of Section 47 enquiries were in progress and tens of care proceedings were before the courts. Hundreds of children subject to child protection plans were depending on social workers employed by ProtectOutsourceOrg to safeguard them from abuse and neglect.

On the day ProtectOutsourceOrg went bottom-up a lot of children became much more at risk of significant harm.

Is this just future fantasy fiction (or social science fiction, if you like)? After all, ProtectOutsourceOrg doesn’t really exist; it is just a creation of an eccentric blogger’s imagination.

Fiction it may be, but it is pretty credible fiction in my view: a realistic prediction of what could happen. If three successive governments could sit on the developing Kids Company debacle as various ministers and civil servants agonised and felt concerned, but continued to write cheques, then surely the same thing could happen in the future when a similar sort of organisation has been trusted with similar, but even more safety critical, responsibilities.

Nobody should want to wait until a “ProtectOutsourceOrg” debacle actually happens, because it can be avoided NOW – simply by revisiting the government’s child protection outsourcing strategy and recognising that it has enormous and unacceptable risks.

* No such organisation as ProtectOutsourceOrg exists – at least I hope it doesn’t. Several Google searches have failed to find an organisation with such an ungainly name. Some early versions of this post had sweeter sounding and more plausible names, but I found that Google searches for them did not produce null results. Not wanting to liable anybody I thought up this weird name.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Kids Company affair – implications for the outsourcing debate

The National Audit Office Report into the demise of the charity Kids Company makes for sombre reading.

The report paints the picture of an organisation that was good at persuading people (especially ministers) to fund it, but which lacked leadership, focus and control when it came to actually providing services. 

I have to say that it has made me reflect, because my first reaction to the charity's closure was to suspect that it had become too outspoken, not too disorganised.

But now it is clear what has happened, and why, it is also clear that the moral of this unhappy saga for the future of child protection services is not being trumpeted loudly enough. Let me explain why.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the former chief executive of Kids Company, is reported to have been an advocate of outsourcing child protection work from local authorities to the voluntary sector. Ministers, of course, are at this very moment working on such plans, albeit involving some private sector involvement as well. The charity's demise is clear evidence just how dangerous such a strategy is.

The biggest obstacle to getting third party providers to deliver complex services to children and families, to meet complex needs, is that complex services are notoriously difficult to specify; and contracts to supply them are notoriously difficult to monitor and enforce. Add to this potent mix the fact that child protection services are safety critical and the potential for serious, and possibly tragic, service failures has to be recognised as being very high indeed. In short, in the wake of the Kids Company collapse, ministers need to recognise the real dangers to services, and to service users, of an arms-length outsourcing approach.

Armed with the lessons of recent history, and informed by this National Audit Office Report, ministers would indeed be reckless to proceed with further outsourcing of children’s services without a great deal of further thought and reflection. From the standpoint of their political careers, and the best interests of children and young people, they would do best to quietly drop the whole outsourcing strategy and to concentrate on less risky and better-evidenced approaches to improvement.

And the Prime Minister himself, who was a fan of Kids Company, would do well to reflect on the errors of judgement implicit in continuing to fund the charity when there appeared to be ample evidence that something was amiss.  In particular he needs to recognise the implications for the whole outsourcing debate.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Should individual social workers be graded as part of Ofsted inspections?

Should individual social workers be graded as part of Ofsted inspections? 

No, no and no again! 

Hackney Children's Services Director Alan Wood's view that grading individual child protection and other social workers would help drive up performance standards is just plain wrong.|SCSC|SC019-2015-1029 

Here are just some of the reasons:

  • As Ofsted has admitted in applying the individual grading principal to teachers (which has now been abandoned), it is not possible in a short inspection to assign reliably a grade to an individual. Inevitably people just having a bad day – or encountering a grumpy inspector – would unjustly be tarred for life with an ‘inadequate’ label.
  • Individuals should have the right to challenge negative judgements about their work. Grading individuals during an inspection could result in a torrent of ‘appeals’ that would have to be resolved before the inspection results could be made public.
  • Gradings would be irreducibly subjective and based only on a brief snapshot of a person’s work.
  • Most importantly performance is driven by trust and constructive feedback, not by unpredictable judgmental labelling. 

Alan Wood, please think again.

    Wednesday, 28 October 2015

    More statistics – the number of children who are looked after continues to rise.

    More than half of children  who are looked after in Britain are looked after because of abuse and neglect. Statistics for England recently published show a steady and persistent increase in their numbers since 2011.
    Like other recently published child protection statistics for England, the trend is in one direction only – up.

    The importance of dentists in child protection

    There is an article in the Daily Record that outlines the contribution dentists can make to the identification of child abuse and neglect. The work of professor of dental surgery, Richard Welbury, who, along with others, has been nominated for a place in the final of the Scottish Heath Awards for his work in making dentists more aware of their responsibilities for child protection.

    Too often the contribution that dentists can make to the process of keeping children safe is ignored in official publications. For example the current version of the UK Government publication, Working Together, makes no mention of dentists at all, despite making frequent references to all the other professional groups who deal with children.

    The condition of a child’s mouth - and possible injuries to a child’s face, head and neck - are important indications of the care, or lack of it, that a child is receiving. That places dentists in a key position to identify child abuse and neglect.