Thursday, 24 September 2015

Musical Chairs

News that Slough Council has completed steps to outsource its children’s services to an independent trust – as it has been ordered to do by the Children’s Minister, following two findings of ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted – puts me in mind of the children’s party game where everybody dances around and then rushes to sit down when the music stops.
You can go around and around and keep putting your backside down on different chairs, but just having a different name and a few different people at the top is not a substitute for understanding why services are failing. Rather than having ‘solutions’ based on myths and fantasies, such as the myth that outsourcing is a magic cure for all ills, it would make much more sense to have a little bit more investigation and analysis and to generate learning that could be applied elsewhere as well.

I loved the bit in Children and Young People Now's article on this subject where it says that part of the deal is that the trust will gain an Ofsted rating of “good” within three years (which it may well do) and achieve a rating of “outstanding” by 2020. Of the 59 Ofsted inspections undertaken between November 2013 and June 2015 precisely NONE (0%) were found to be outstanding, so either this independent trust knows something that the rest of us don’t or there are going to be some disappointed people in Slough! 

It all goes to show how easy it is to write high sounding ambitions into an outsourcing contract in the almost certain knowledge that they are very unlikely to be achieved.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Improving Child Protection – three sources of knowledge

There are some things that are so simple that most people don’t consciously think of them. As a result they seldom get said or written down. In wider discussions of the issues they are often ignored.

A very simple thought of that kind occurred to me the other day. It goes like this: for any service there are three sources of knowledge that must be drawn on to achieve an improvement in the service:

·       The experience of those receiving the service
·       Knowledge about the technology on which the service is based
·       The experience of those who deliver the service

Applying this to child protection is straightforward. In order to improve child protection services we need to:

·       Capture and evaluate the experience and reactions of children and young people who receive services
·       Critically discuss research about the causes and effects of child maltreatment and what needs to be done to reduce its prevalence
·       Capture and evaluate the experience and reactions of the people who deliver services – what goes wrong and what goes right and how things could be done better

In the academic world most effort is focused on the second of these sources of knowledge – the phenomenon of child maltreatment and the technology of intervention. There is some limited research about the other two, but it is very limited. When policy makers talk about ‘lessons from research’ they usually mean academic research.

My view is that sustained and lasting improvement in child protection will only come about if everybody engaged in planning, delivering, researching and evaluating services focuses on each of these areas of knowledge and helps to develop them. A great deal could be done within all organisations involved in child protection to capture and evaluate the experiences of children and young people and the experiences of workers; and to capture their ideas about how services could be improved. But sadly that is not happening in any widespread or consistent way, with the result that services remain stuck in a rut and subject to the whims of ill-informed policy makers and self-appointed ‘experts’.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Dave, it's dumb ....

I’ve just come back from a short holiday to find that the dust is still settling after David Cameron’s ‘smarter state’ speech in which he dropped all sorts of dark hints about what may happen to children’s social work and child protection.

The truth of the matter is that what is most wrong with all of this is not necessarily particular proposals – such as privatisation – but rather the whole approach of some small group top of politicians and ‘experts’ working out what is best and then threatening to impose it top-down. That way of thinking is no better than the last Labour government’s ill-fated Every Child Matters approach which was thought up by groups of people who knew more about spin-doctoring than protecting children. And it will fail for the same reasons. If you don’t have a clear idea about what happens and how it goes wrong, you will never put it right.

A small group of people whose members have never worked in the field and never engaged with vulnerable children and young people has only a very limited grasp of what happens and why. They quickly come-up with half-baked myths about what is wrong, to which they propose half-baked solutions.

Privatisation has all the hallmarks of one such dumb policy. It seems to be based on the idea that bringing in organisations that have very limited experience and a completely untried approach to doing the work will result in it being done better. That’s a bit like saying that a struggling motor manufacturer should bring in a team of dentists to solve its technical problems.

Making matters better starts and ends at the coalface. Unless those who actually do this very complicated and varied work are tasked with thinking about how to do it better, and empowered to make improvements, nothing will ever change. Somebody will just come in with the rubber stamp marked privatisation and in a couple of years we will all be back at square one (albeit a privatised square-one!)

Friday, 4 September 2015

Unnecessary criminalisation

The recently published National Police Chiefs Council’s (NPCC’s) National Strategy for Policing Childrenand Young People is a step in the right direction. But there is still much to do to reduce the powerful forces that seem to conspire to criminalise some children and young people.  It was only last month that I drew attention to two reports that provided concrete examples of how this happens.

I couldn’t help noticing that the NPCC’s report has a foreword by Deputy Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney. She was also on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday, where she seemed to me to equivocate rather too much over the behaviour of a police force which thought it was a good idea to criminalise a 14 year-old boy who had unwisely ‘sexted’ a picture of himself with no clothes on. Apparently the record of his ‘crime’ could be kept on file for years and might influence his ability to find certain kinds of work in the future.

The idea that the tentacles of the criminal law, and its bureaucracy, should extend into schools and homes to regulate behaviour which is perhaps not wise or discreet, but which hurts nobody, must be tackled head on. Children and young people who have data of this sort stored against them can face a blighted future. We must all be prepared to condemn unequivocally practices that result in the unnecessary criminalisation of children.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Pressure Cooker of Children’s Services

The news of the day undoubtedly comes from Community Care whose survey of 1,000 children’s social workers in England found that more than 40% had experienced management pressure to reclassify child protection cases as ‘child in need’.

More than a third were reported to have felt pressure to return looked-after children to their birth families, with about three-quarters of these believing that the reason was saving money.

Surveys like this should never be brushed aside, as I thought some of the comments from Government and elsewhere tended to do. This survey is congruent with other data we have about the child protection system in England, which appears to be dealing more and more with more cases, with fewer resources.

That could be a recipe for disaster.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Problems with mandatory reporting in South Australia

Ahead of the forthcoming consultation on introducing mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect in England, the UK Government should take heed of the controversy raging in South Australia, where mandatory reporting has been established for some time.

7 News reports that South Australia’s premier, Jay Weatherill, has said that mandatory reporting is swamping the state’s child protection system with tens of thousands of unanswered and abandoned calls. He believes that this is putting children experiencing abuse at even greater risk.

The UK Government should take note. Mandatory reporting could have precisely the opposite of intended consequences.

Monday, 31 August 2015

West Berkshire

Published in May 2015, Ofsted’s inspection report on services for children in need of help and protection in West Berkshire rated the local authority ‘inadequate’ and found that:

“There are widespread or serious failures that create or leave children being harmed or at risk of harm. Leaders and managers have been ineffective in making improvements in this area.”

“A significant proportion of child protection enquiries, assessments and plans for children are poor.”

This week Children and Young People Now reports that Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, has appointed a private company to help tackle the perceived failings in West Berkshire.  Apparently he has said that the council should work with the company, Exploring Choices, with the aim of agreeing an improvement plan by the end of September.

I had a look on the company’s website  and found that the members of ‘the team’ were largely, if not exclusively, from an education background – former head teachers and the like. Yet Ofsted’s concerns about West Berkshire are very much focused on child protection. That, I think, raises some important issues.

Ever since responsibility for child protection was moved from the Department of Health to the Department for Education, more than ten years ago now, it has seemed to me that there is a significant danger that children’s social care will become just a small part of the much larger schools and education sector. Transferring responsibility for the inspection of children’s social care to the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, only added to this danger. Inevitably ideas about how to manage and improve schools percolate into debates about how to provide children services and how to protect children more effectively. All too often child protection is inspected as if it were just another type of school.

However, there are some very important differences between managing and evaluating schools and managing and evaluating child protection, and other children’s social care, services. Here are just a few that I’ve thought of:

Child Protection

Child protection services are professional services. Task variety is high, but volumes of work are relatively low (only a small proportion of children receive this type of service). There needs to be a high degree of customisation for each child or family, with different service-users receiving quite different types of service. Importantly the service is most often taken to the child/family, rather than the child/family coming to a service centre.
Schools, on the other hand, are not quite mass services (such as a railway network or an airline) but they are ‘service shops’ which deal with high volumes and offer only limited customisation (there is a national curriculum, not an individual curriculum, and students are offered only limited choices about what and how they study). In contrast to child protection services, service users attend a facility (the school), which is where most of the service is delivered.

Child protection services experience variation in demand. At the present time there is a strong underlying upward trend in work; and there are also peaks and troughs in demand many of which are difficult to predict.
Usually schools experience little variation in demand. They have a particular number of places that are filled at the beginning of the school year and once the school is full no new students are recruited unless a student leaves.

Child protection services are provided by more than one agency. Children’s social care, the police and health services have to work together to respond to a single referral. All these agencies have other demands on them at any particular time. This may limit their ability to respond to a particular incident.
Schools are managed by a single management hierarchy headed by a head teacher. Usually schools are not heavily dependent on other agencies and organisations to deliver services.

Child protection services are emergency services that ideally should be able to configure rapidly to deal with a new incident. The pace of work may vary substantially between times when a new incident has occurred and times when no incident is occurring (rather like the fire and ambulance services).
In contrast schools run to strictly implemented pre-planned timetables with work as far as possible being equally distributed throughout the school day.

It is often hard to assess the quality of interaction between social workers, on the one hand, and children and families, on the other, simply by observing practice. The quality of interventions depends on a long-term series of contacts, decisions and actions that is usually not completed within the span of an inspection. For this reason inspectors often rely heavily on reading written records.
It is possible for inspectors to observe much of the service a school offers, simply by observing its teaching. There is a wealth of hard data relating to the performance of the school (e.g. examination results).

It is hard to directly observe child protection practice, not least because the emotions of some of the participants are running high. Observer effects could put lives at risk.
It is relatively easy to observe teaching, although there may be an observer effect.

Child protection is safety critical. Potentially every service episode involves significant risks to a child or young person. Potential violence towards workers is often a factor.
Usually the school environment is well controlled and the risks to children, teachers and any third parties are low.