Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Probation Service – a warning (to Child Protection) from recent history

In recent years the British government has flirted with ‘outsourcing’ or partial privatisation of child protection services. An argument along the following lines has developed. Child protection services need to improve. The private sector is better at innovating than the public sector. Involvement of private sector companies in child protection would result in beneficial change. Conclusion: we need to outsource. 

What is described as ‘an independent research report’ was published in December 2016 by the Department for Education (which is responsible for children’s services in England). This reviews the potential for “developing the capacity and diversity of children’s social care services in England” and has several chapters devoted to explaining and endorsing ‘outsourcing’.

The authors of this report comment:

“We were particularly attracted to the model of ‘tiered’ segmentation applied in the recent national procurement of probation services, where independent sector providers across England have won contracts to run 21 Community Rehabilitation companies to provide support services, leaving the highest level functions only for public sector in‐house supply.”
[Table 4b, page 23.] 

They go on to explain how this model could be applied to children’s services.

Oh, how they must now regret those words which were a glaring hostage to fortune, for we read in today’s Guardian that the Probation Service is to be renationalised after what are described as “disastrous” reforms. 

Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, whose revelations that offenders were being ‘supervised’ by infrequent phone calls (rather than the expected regular face-to-face contacts) have hastened the re-nationalisation, is quoted by the Guardian as saying that the privatisation was “irredeemably flawed” and that she is delighted at the decision to re-nationalise the service. She is reported to have said: “Probation is a complex social service, and it has proved well-nigh impossible to reduce it to a set of contractual requirements.”

In February of this year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued equally damning criticism of the Probation Service ‘reforms’. It said that unacceptable risks had been taken with taxpayers’ money and that the changes resulted in services which were fragile and underfunded and which failed to command the confidence of the courts. 

If our government was sensible (which might be a big ask) then ministers responsible for children's social care in the Department for Education would learn from the Probation Service privatisation fiasco. They would heed the warnings of wise commentators, such as Professor Ray Jones, who have warned that the creeping privatisation of children's services will have disastrous results. And they would think very carefully about Glenys Stacey’s insightful comment that the Probation Service is “a complex social service,” and that it has proved “impossible to reduce it to a set of contractual requirements.”
If probation services are complex, which they are, then how much more complex are child protection services? Ministers have an absolute duty to ensure that they do not recklessly upset the apple cart and spawn another disastrous reform which will put children’s lives at risk.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The same old story – but it needs telling and telling again

The House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has just published a report which confirms all we know about what is happening to children’s services funding in England. Its conclusion is that they are at breaking point with an additional £3 billion required to plug the gap in funding to 2025.

The report reminds us that there has been an unremitting increase in demand for children's social services in the last ten years, with the number of children in care rising from under 60,000 in 2008 to more than 75,000 in 2018; and that during that period funding has woefully failed to keep up. 

It also draws attention to high rates of staff turnover and points out that children suffer because of changes in social worker and high dependence on temporary agency staff. It concludes that the system is simply not working. 

You can download a copy of the report at:

or alternatively there is a good summary of it in the Times Educational Supplement.

I wonder what part of “There is a funding crisis in children’s services” the government doesn’t understand. For some time now, ministers have heard the same message from virtually every source, but they seem incapable of acknowledging the extent of the problem. Unless they act decisively to put matters right they will have crossed the line from incompetence to wilful neglect of children’s services and of the children they should serve.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Vulnerable children deserve better - the parlous state of children’s social care in England

An unequivocal report from the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons pulls no punches.

The Committee’s Chair sums it up, concluding that:

“Government’s progress with reforming children’s services has been painfully slow and it has still not made clear what sustainable improvements it hopes to achieve. Children, many of them in desperate circumstances, deserve better.”

The report notes the following:

·     The Department for Education, which is responsible for children’s services in England, does not possess a comprehensive assessment of the sustainability or resource needs of children’s social care services
·     The sector is not financially sustainable with 91% of local authorities exceeding their budgets for spending on children's services in 2017-18
·     The Department for Education cannot explain the significant variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care and it does not have an adequate understanding of demand pressures
·     The increasing use, and high cost, of residential care puts local authorities under extreme financial pressure
·     There is a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of early interventions in children’s social care
·     The Department has not set out what overall improvement it is seeking in children’s social care by 2022
·     There is little evidence of strong cross-government collaboration in improving children’s social care

Criticisms don’t come much more damning than those! The report chimes with so much of what we have been hearing from other sources over the years which, sadly, our government seems only to happy to ignore. Ministers' complacency has been staggering.

The Committee’s report should be a watershed. Now that MPs have joined the chorus calling for vulnerable children to receive the services they need and deserve, rather than some third rate inadequate and declining alternative, ministers must act and act decisively. It is simply not good enough trotting out the usual excuses about spending a pittance on so-called innovation and other distractions. Urgent action is required to properly fund children’s services now and in the future.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Some looked after teenagers face squalid accommodation

You don’t need to do more than read the very sobering article in the Observer today to know that local authorities in the UK are struggling to accommodate some looked-after children adequately. The article list numerous cases of authorities using very unsatisfactory Bedsits, Bed and Breakfast accommodation, caravans and even tents (!) to house teenagers.

Marked increases in the use of deeply unsatisfactory accommodation have occurred in the last few years.

It seems to me fairly obvious what the cause of this dire state of affairs is. Local authorities do not have adequate resources to do the job. Ever increasing numbers of children coming into care, on the one hand, and squeezed austerity budgets, on the other, mean only one thing – declining standards.

It is deeply shocking that an advanced country like Britain cannot look after its most vulnerable young people satisfactorily. Politicians who preside over this debacle should be ashamed.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Understanding the impact of stress on error in child protection work should be a priority

In a post I made at the beginning of November, I said that there is a lot of evidence that stressed employees do not deliver good products and services.

I was therefore interested to read the other day that scientists at Columbia University have recently shown that during stressful times in operating theatres, surgeons make up to 66 percent more mistakes than at other times. 

I don’t expect that the methodology of the Columbia study - which involved the wearing of special clothing which monitored the electrical activity of a surgeon’s heart while operating - could be easily adapted to social workers and other child protection practitioners, working as they do in community settings. However, some research into the relationship between stress and error in child protection work would be a very good idea. And I think it should also look at the impact of both long-term and short-term stress.

Surely such a study is possible. There must be academics out there who could undertake it. And there must be sources of funding that could be found. Understanding the impact of stress on error in child protection work should be a priority.

Friday, 14 December 2018


I am very pleased to see that Professor Ray Jones is publishing a book on the outsourcing of children’s services. He is, of course, a well-known critic of the increasing involvement of private companies in the delivery of children’s social care.

According to an article in Community Care, Jones argument in his new book is that accountability is being lost in the burgeoning number of moves to an “alternative delivery model” in such places as Richmond-and-Kingston, Doncaster, Slough, Sandwell and Worcestershire. According to Jones, Directors of Children’s Services, in areas where outsourcing occurs, will be increasingly faced with the loss of “information and intelligence” about what is happening in those services.

He is absolutely right. And fortuitously the launch of his book coincides with news of a major public sector outsourcing fiasco in which the British Army outsourced its recruitment to a large private sector company with extremely disappointing results. The Guardian says that government officials did not understand how complex the project was before signing the deal.

If recruiting soldiers is a very complicated business, how much more complex is protecting children from abuse and neglect? And how much more complicated will the outsourcing contracts have to be in order to ensure that the outsourcers deliver what is promised? If the Army can get outsourcing a relatively straightforward service so badly wrong, how much more likely is it that local authorities will get the outsourcing of a very complex professional service (like child protection) wrong? I suggest it is very likely.

Interestingly the business literature on outsourcing does not provide much support for the kind of outsourcing deals which the government is trying to foist on children’s services in England. In a seminal work on offshoring and outsourcing, Oshri, Kotlarsky, and Willcocks* argue that activities which constitute the basis or core of an organisation’s operation (which they call ‘order winners’) should alwaysbe kept in house. On the other hand ‘necessary evils’ such as administration, payroll or facilities management are usually good candidates for outsourcing. 

The government, in contrast, propounds policies for child protection outsourcing which involve core activities being transferred lock, stock and barrel to outsourcers. And the government provides no account of why outsourcers would be any better at delivering these core activities than local authorities. The reality is that local authorities are being pressurised into adopting strategies for which there is no evidence and no clear business rationale. That does not seem sensible to me.

If the government were proposing outsourcing only back-office services, I would have some sympathy. As it is I have to agree with Ray Jones – we should be “scared” about what is happening. Even if ministers do not listen to social work academics like Jones, or to business academics or other experts, one would hope that they would at least be chastened by what is happening to government outsourcing deals in defence and other spheres and heed the warnings. But I don't expect they will.

*Ilan Oshri, Julia Kotlarsky, Professor Leslie P. Willcocks The Handbook of Global Outsourcing and Offshoring Palgrave Macmillan, 2011,+necessary+evils&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Health Visitors are essential for effective child protection

 An article in Care Appointments reports on a poll of 1,200 Health Visitors in England which reveals an over-stretched service and concerns that tragedies could occur because vulnerable children may not be identified until it is too late.

It was found that less qualified, non-registered practitioners were being used in some areas to conduct child health and development checks, so that Health Visitors could concentrate on working with children already identified as vulnerable. Another undesirable practice of providing early contacts over the phone had also arisen. Forty-three percent of the respondents to the survey reported being so stretched that they feared a tragedy could occur. 

The survey puts into dramatic focus the effects of the continuing cuts to public health budgets in England, resulting in the loss of about 25% of the health visiting workforce during the past three years, with another round of cuts due in 2019/20. 

Health visiting, which is conducted by qualified nurses and midwives who have also gained an additional health visiting qualification, has a long and distinguished tradition in Britain, dating back to the late nineteenth century. Child health and development checks, carried out by Health Visitors, play a vital role in child safeguarding and protection, often providing the kind of early warning which otherwise would not be available. Not infrequently the Health Visitor is the only professional in regular contact with families with small children.

Not funding health visiting properly is a false economy. It is self-evident that early intervention, before serious neglect or abuse occurs, is preferable to late intervention. And the more we understand about the impact of early abuse and neglect on a child’s subsequent development, the more we understand that not providing effective health support and advice services to young families - and health monitoring of children during the early years - is as foolish as it is penny-pinching.