Saturday, 7 October 2017

Health and Care Professions Council - important research

I have made numerous posts over several years about the way in which the Health and Care Professions Council (the HCPC) deals with social workers. Too often, it seems to me, people who have made mistakes while otherwise acting in good faith, or people who have cut corners to get a job done in difficult circumstances, have been hauled up in front of the Council and punished, when reflection, learning, support and perhaps retraining would have been more appropriate responses.

In December 2016 I outlined a particularly dire example of an inappropriate referral to the HCPC. I drew the conclusion that that case had all the hallmarks of a blame-the-victim culture, in which people are left unsupported to struggle in impossible situations for which they are then held accountable. I asked how long it would be before the powers-that-be realise that blaming people is a very poor way to achieve greater safety or higher quality? And I pointed out that safer services are brought about by people feeling able to talk openly about the difficulties they have in coping with challenging situations, which does not happen if they think they will be punished for doing so.

So, I am very pleased to see in Community Care that the HCPC itself has now recognised that there is a problem in the way in which it deals with social workers and has commissioned research from the University of Surrey in order to try to understand what is happening.

It is reported that the research found that referrals concerning social workers constitute an unduly high proportion of the HCPC’s work and that they are often inappropriate. Social workers account for less than 30% of the HCPC’s regulated professionals, but more than half of all referrals to the Council concern social workers.

The researchers argue that social work suffers from a ‘blame culture’ and from ‘defensive practice’, with employers regularly referring concerns to the HCPC in order to maintain public credibility and protect themselves by “… ensuring ‘misconduct’ or ‘incompetence’ is seen to be dealt with at an individual level”. The researchers conclude that many social work referrals to HCPC would be better dealt with by employer support.

This is all music to my ears. I congratulate the HCPC on commissioning the research and look forward to it being taken forward in changes to practice and procedure.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Rushing to judgement

Back in August I wrote a brief post in this blog about an article in the Times alleging that a child had been placed with Muslim foster carers ‘inappropriately’.

At the time, I cautioned that the full facts of the case were not known and that much of the kind of comment I expected to see in the tabloid press would be inappropriate.

Now we have something approximating a factual account of the case. The Guardian reports that the Family Court judge has concluded that the child had a ‘warm’ relationship with the foster carers and is quoted as saying that the foster carers had not behaved in any way that was inconsistent with providing warm and appropriate care for the child.

To my mind all this goes to show that the press (especially the tabloid press) is not an appropriate place to determine the best interests of any child. Sickening and reckless comments by right wing columnists and ‘exclusives’ which appear to have stood the truth on its head have not helped this child or any other. Rather they make the whole process of trying to help children and families in need that much harder.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Accreditation - take a bad idea and make it dafter

You only need to skim Community Care’s account of a presentation on the vexed subject of accreditation for children’s social workers by the Department for Education’s Deputy Director of Social Work Reform, Sam Olsen, to appreciate the extent to which policy makers seem to have completely lost the plot.
Hardest to swallow in the report of Olsen’s speech is the claim that introducing the accreditation test would result in children’s social workers receiving better supervision. She speaks as if nobody in the profession had hitherto realised the importance of supervision and that all they need to introduce it is a kick from behind.

The phrase ‘utter nonsense’ springs to mind. Anybody who has actually practiced social work with children knows the value of high quality supervision. But the problem is how to deliver it in organisations which are under huge resource pressures and plagued by instabilities due to staff shortages and high turnover. If you have a high caseload, you have a lot of cases to discuss with your supervisor. That requires more time which you don’t have because you are so busy managing too many cases.

I have to say that I am getting more and more fed up with people who are not professional social workers, pontificating on things of which they appear to have only a slender grasp. Excruciatingly, Olsen is reported as arguing that her Department’s truly awful accreditation scheme will be “empowering” for social workers and constitutes an important step towards professionalising children’s social work.

An important step towards professionalising children’s social work would be to support the profession in further professionalising itself, instead of trying to impose half-baked schemes devised by management consultants and policy wonks. You don’t need much insight to realise that a silly check-box test, which represents an arbitrary hurdle for social workers to clear in order to keep doing their jobs, is most likely to result in more social workers deciding that the profession is not for them. That will result in even more vacancies and higher turnover and less and less time for supervision.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Reflections on the Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith Serious Case Review

In the wake of the serious case review into the death of Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith, Joanna Nicholas (in the Guardian) wrestles with the problem of agencies appearing just to pay ‘lip service’ to the importance of learning from child protection tragedies. She concludes that we “… make all the right noises but then seem to carry on doing what we were doing before”.

Joanna points to two apparently obvious failings highlighted in the review: failure to follow-up a missed medical appointment of a child subject to a child protection plan and failure of medical staff to think about the possibility of abuse and neglect in framing their differential diagnosis. She despairs that what she calls these ‘simple aspects of practice’ were not followed in Ayeeshia’s case.

Sadly, except for a couple of concluding comments that there needs to be more research and clearer management direction, Joanna doesn’t provide us with a solution to the problem she outlines.

In contrast, I think that there is a solution. I think that what is needed is to create a responsive safety culture in child protection, just as they have done in other safety critical industries. We need to stop wagging the finger of blame and hoping to solve problems by top-down management fiat. Instead, we need to give people permission to learn and to put things right.

Unsafe practice persists not because child protection professionals are weak, ignorant, lazy or ill-informed, which, of course, by and large they are not. It persists because they are too often prevented from speaking openly and critically about what goes wrong routinely and analysing why it goes wrong.

Human error and organisational failings, just like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, will always be with us. Rather than pretending that they can somehow be switched off at the click of a button, if only we could find it, we need to realise that the only solution is to improve continuously in small incremental steps. Building safer organisations and fostering safer practice is something that everybody involved in child protection needs to be involved in every day. They need to be permitted, encouraged and rewarded for learning from all the small and seemingly insignificant errors that are part of routine practice, but which one day may cumulate to cause a tragic death.

Professionals need to concentrate not so much on relatively rare tragedies. Rather, they need to focus on the mundane daily errors which we all make and look at ways in which better defences to them can be built and sustained.

Joanna Nicholas begins her article by asking: “when will we child protection professionals learn from child deaths?”

I would prefer to rephrase that question as follows: “when will we all (professionals, managers, policy makers, politicians, members of the public, journalists) realise that daily continuous learning is central to a safety critical activity like child protection? And when will we begin to put in place the conditions that are necessary to make that kind of learning flourish?”

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Good news from Merton

There are so many words and phrases which tick all the right boxes in Ofsted’s report on children’s services in the London Borough of Merton, that I had to pinch myself to make sure it was not a dream.

I particularly liked the following: “a ‘flatter’ management structure”, “a 33% increase in frontline social workers”, “an extra £1 million pounds per year for the past three years”, “manageable caseloads”, “frequent supervision”, “a challenging and rewarding environment”, "frequent supervision" and “a strong culture of learning”.

You can read more about the inspection in Community Care.

Or if you have the time read the whole report yourself.

Closing Gaps

Peter Beresford in yesterday’s Guardian draws attention to what appears to me to be one of the most exciting and creative approaches to social work education to have emerged in recent years.

The new approach, apparently pioneered at Lund University in Sweden (which incidentally is also the home of a well-known department of risk management and societal safety - ) involves educating trainee children’s social workers and care leavers together.

Referred to as ‘gap-mending’, the idea is to focus on how divisions between service users and social work students can be bridged, with an emphasis on understanding user perspectives and requirements.

I loved one of the quotations in Beresford’s piece. A care leaver is quoted as saying: “my bad experiences of homelessness are now valued as an asset in the education of future social workers”. Another spoke of helping to avoid “the same mistakes” in future. I love that expression ‘asset’ in this context. One of the best tricks is to turn liabilities (things not right) into assets (things of value).

This is exactly the approach we should be taking to learning in social work and child protection generally. We should listen carefully to those on the receiving end of services. We should look for service shortfalls and opportunities for improvement. We should work together to make lasting improvements.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Will ye no come back again?

The old Scottish ballad - Will ye no come back again?- is a pleasing melody. Likewise, the English Come Back to Social Work scheme sounds very easy on the ear. It is simply a good idea to offer social workers retraining and assistance to return to social work after a career break.
You can read more about the initiative in a recent article in Community Care.

One thing I don’t understand is why it is necessary to be so cautious about launching this scheme. For example, there are currently only 100 places available and only social workers who have left the profession in the last five years are eligible. Why?

Given that the shortage of experienced social workers is now reaching (or even exceeding) crisis point I can see no reason why the doors should not be flung open to returnees and every effort and resource put into re-recruiting as many as possible.