Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Losing the Plot? The NSPCC's response to Munro

I have just discovered a response to the Munro report by the NSPCC's chief executive Andrew Flanagan. http://www.suttonnspcc.org/wordpress/?p=207 Although dated 10th May, and therefore definitely yesterday’s news, I cannot allow it to pass without comment.

While purporting to support Munro's vision of a child protection system centred on the child and free from unnecessary red tape, the NSPCC’s response describes her report as “short on detail”. The response continues:
“The government should not move too quickly to rapid deregulation. It needs to invest heavily in building the skills, confidence and experience of all professionals working with children. Controls which safeguard against poor practice must stay in place while professionalism is built. Otherwise, children's lives could be put at risk.”
Flanagan concludes that it will take at least 10 years to build and retain a high-calibre workforce and reminds the government that “child protection is everyone's responsibility”. He cautions it not to lose sight of the fact that “keeping children safe does not start and end with social workers”.

It is difficult to know where to begin. I was initially puzzled by the comment that Munro is short on detail, especially so given the length and complexity of the two volumes which comprise her report. However, it only takes a couple of minutes reflection that to see that Flanagan must mean 'short on detail' about what a reformed child protection system would look like. But that misses the point. The Munro report, unlike previous attempts at policy in this area, does not attempt to prescribe top-down what a child protection system should be. Rather it cautions against that sort of control. How abused and neglected children are helped cannot be specified by politicians and other policy makers - not even by the NSPCC. Indeed Munro's argument is that trying to do precisely that is what has got us into the present mess.

Flanagan compounds this mistake in the paragraph quoted in its entirety above. The key words are "Controls which safeguard against poor practice must stay in place while professionalism is built". Unpacking this sentence reveals its absurdity. It seems to advocate that social workers should continue to follow the rule book while at the same time developing greater professionalism. But how could that operate? Surely no-one is advocating a situation in which a worker says: "My professional judgement tells me to do X, but the rule book tells me to do Y, so I'll do Y even though I know it's wrong"? And where do social workers find the time to engage in reflective practice if they are still filling in all the forms? And how, precisely, do people become 'professionals' if they have spent all of their 'professional' lives being bureaucrats, following the rules which others have imposed? It could never work like that.

The whole point about Munro's approach is that something needs to happen to free social workers rapidly from the vice like grip of forms and check-lists and computer systems which divert practice from child-centred relationships and professional decision-making. Making that shift cannot be without risks, but it is preferable to the status quo where the prospect of ever increasing paralysis and ineffectiveness, due to proceduralisation, looms large. You can't have your cake and eat it, Andrew, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Before moving on, just a couple of comments about the tail end of Andrew Flanagan's statement. The phrase “child protection is everyone's responsibility” is a good one, but it does not mean that everyone has the same responsibility for child protection. Most professionals who have contact with children must be alert for the signs of child abuse and neglect and be willing to co-operate if inquiries become necessary. But they cannot be responsible for specific actions to protect a child, because they do not have legal powers and particular expertise. Those who do have powers and expertise must be well placed to use them - and that's why child protection social workers are vitally important. Keeping children safe does not "start and end with social workers" - it does not start and end with anybody - but social workers do have a crucially important and quite specific role to play which should never be understated.