Thursday, 16 April 2015

Manifesto Time

The general election campaign is hotting-up in Britain. On 7th May 2015 the British people will elect a new government. In the meantime the various parties are publishing their manifestos. Not to be out done I thought I should publish my own.

First of all here’s what will NOT be in my child protection manifesto:

There will be nothing about privatising child protection services. Privatisation is a complete distraction that has enormous potential to be very disruptive. And there is absolutely no evidence that it would make any positive difference. The worst-case scenario that child protection could be handed over to companies and organisations that have no previous experience and no demonstrable competence is too dire to contemplate. So privatisation is definitively out.

There will also be nothing in my manifesto about mandatory reporting. I am in favour of all professionals and other practitioners always reporting child abuse and neglect (which is what it says in current guidance) but I am NOT in favour of using the criminal law to punish people who make mistakes. And it goes without saying that I am completely against jail sentences (like those proposed by the Prime Minister) for social workers and teachers who get it wrong. The blame culture actually makes children and young people less safe, because it makes workers afraid to talk about – and therefore learn from – their mistakes.

And, unlike UKIP who published their manifesto yesterday, there will definitely NOT be anything in my manifesto about “wholesale reform”. What we need is steady incremental progress, not some chaotic reform designed by people who have no relevant experience or expertise and lots of untested opinions.

Enough of the negatives, here’s what will be in my manifesto:

The pervasive theme of my manifesto is that of a learning culture. That is a culture in which a premium is placed on understanding why things go wrong and progressively changing practices and organisations to try to reduce the probability of things going wrong again. It wouldn’t be a ‘no-blame culture’ (because professionals and other practitioners who engage in deliberate wrongdoing should face the consequences) but it would be a ‘just culture’ – one in which people who make honest mistakes are not blamed and individuals are never scapegoated because of organisational failings. It would be a ‘reporting culture’ – one in which people were respected and rewarded for talking openly about human error and learning from mistakes to make their organisations safer.

Cultures like that are not brought about by legislation, but government could provide a national lead. It could set the tone and model the appropriate behaviour in how it responded when things went wrong. Not caving in to the ranting of the popular press every time there is a tragedy would be a good start.

The next item in my manifesto might not seem at first sight to be closely related to the last, but it is. I would take away from Ofsted responsibility for child protection and children’s services inspections. In my view Ofsted is very much part of a name-and-shame culture. It has NOT contributed to learning how to do things better – it just says: “This is wrong, put it right”. The methodology of its inspections is suspect and it has never satisfactorily addressed allegations of lack of independence, stemming from the re-writing of inspection reports following the Baby Peter tragedy. Ofsted seems to have little corporate knowledge of child protection, or organisational safety, or good management practice. Its inspections are judgmental and often process focused. Even its attempts to engage with children and young people and other service users are tokenistic. In short it is not fit for purpose. In its place I would create an organisation that researched child protection, investigated when things went wrong and carried out inspections that focused on improvement, not on putting organisations in a ‘sin-bin’.

I would abolish Serious Case Reviews. They are resource hungry, time-consuming, slow to report and they mostly provide only a very partial picture of what has gone wrong. They seldom address the question ‘why’ and as a consequence they seldom make sensible suggestions for improvement. Instead I would task the organisation with which I would replace Ofsted to carry out investigations into child protection disasters, much in the same way as the Air Accident Investigation Branch carries out enquiries into civil air crashes.

I would establish a national funding formula for child protection that made it very difficult to under-fund services. Central government should commit to an open and transparent arrangement, so that everybody concerned should be able to see how much is being spent by whom on what.

I would make the provision of therapeutic services (such as mental health) to children and young people who have been abused and neglected a part of that formula. It is just not acceptable that those who have suffered should be left without appropriate support.

I would consult on returning central government responsibility for child protection and children’s social care to the Department of Health. Located where it is, in the Department for Education, it sticks out like a sore thumb. I would like to see much closer working together between local authority children’s services, community health services for children and families, paediatric services, accident and emergency services and child and adolescent mental health services. That could most easily be led from the Department of Health.

Talking of community health services for children and families, I would allocate sufficient resources to see a full return to a fully staffed Health Visitor service. It is a disgrace that numbers of Health Visitors were allowed to decline and have not yet been fully restored, when what we need are more than ever because of changing demographics.

For a long time I have been unhappy with the way in which local government has brought to child protection and children’s services those regrettable aspects of local government culture with which we are all familiar:  bureaucracy, procedures, hierarchies, targets, some aspects of local politics – I could go on. As I have already said I’m not a great advocate of disruptive change, so I wouldn’t want to do anything too dramatic too quickly, but I think it is time to consider ways in which the professional ethos of children’s services could be better preserved within the existing local authority framework. Perhaps some semi-autonomous organisation within the local authority, but involving input particularly from health professionals would be a good idea. I would also like to see much greater use of multi-disciplinary teams and inter-agency working. The multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASH) are proving to be a quiet success, so the model of professionals from different agencies working in single teams could be broadened to include other parts of the service. Having a clinical psychologist on hand as part of the team or a paediatrician specifically tasked to support and train social workers and other professionals would be a great resource.

In terms of capital spending I think something sensible needs to be done about IT for child protection. Supportive IT is what is required, something that makes the job easier and quicker and makes records more accurate, accessible and reliable. We need something that reduces the amount of administration and frees-up professionals to work face to face more often with children and families. We need something that reduces stress, not increases it. We need new fresh thinking.

My final thoughts concern training. I think all different kinds of professionals engaged in child protection, no matter what their area of expertise, should undertake training in how to work more safely. The kind of training I have in mind is often referred to as Human Factors. It is non-technical training that teaches people to understand how they make errors at work and gives them some basic skills in avoiding or mitigating errors in the workplace. It isn’t very expensive. Government could and should fund it.