Tuesday, 15 December 2015

We don’t want ‘landmark reforms’ – we want safer child protection services

Yesterday the Prime Minister outlined what is being described as a major overhaul of child protection in England. He claims that it is “a landmark reform”. There is a very thorough account of what was announced in the Yorkshire Post.

At the heart of the package of changes is the proposal that “failing” local authority children’s services will be taken over unless they rapidly recover from an Ofsted finding of ‘inadequate’. Trusts composed of other more successful local authorities and charities will step-in to run the services.

Something similar has, of course, already happened in places like Doncaster, so the idea is not entirely new, but what the Government is now proposing appears to be much more of an automatic process. If Ofsted rates an authority ‘inadequate’, and the authority does not improve within the next six months, a commissioner, who can call in outside help from other local authorities and charities, will be put in charge. It is as simple as that.

For reasons outlined below I don’t like these reforms. They seem to me to be Ofsted-driven, process focused and not based on a clear understanding of how service failures occur. In short, they are a bad idea.

Instead of setting out the argument in a separate post I am going to reproduce (with permission) an article being published by the Safer Safeguarding Group.

This is a recently formed group of professionals from a variety of fields who all want to see much clearer thinking about safety in child protection. Needless to say I am a member. If you would like to join the group or want any more information, use the ‘contact’ section of the group’s website or email: SaferSafeguarding@gmx.com

Here is the article:

Members of the Safer Safeguarding Group are pleased to see that the Government believes it is a priority to improve child protection services in England. However we believe that what the Prime Minister called “landmark reforms”, announced on 14th December 2015, are unlikely to achieve the far-reaching outcomes that ministers say they desire.

At the heart of the package is a proposal that failing local authority children’s services will be taken over unless they rapidly recover from an Ofsted finding of ‘inadequate’. In the absence of marked improvement within six months, a commissioner will be appointed who can establish a trust, composed of other more successful local authorities and charities, to step-in and run the services. With one-in-four Ofsted child protection inspections resulting in a verdict of ‘inadequate’, there looks likely to be plenty of scope for commissioners stepping in and take-overs by trusts occurring. We have important reservations about any improvement process that is largely driven by the outcomes of Ofsted’s inspections which tend to concentrate on issues of process rather than the important fundamental issues of safe operation.

Nor do we believe that root and branch organisational change is a good way to develop safer services. New commissioners, trust boards and management structures may all sound like a ‘new broom’, but we believe that lasting safety advances come about through slow, incremental and continuous improvement in which front-line practitioners, in particular, are involved in understanding how service failings occur and how to prevent and mitigate them. Large-scale organisational change is highly disruptive. All too often once the dust has settled, unhelpful and unsafe working practices are found to have persisted unaddressed. Not only that but changes of this type do not come cheap. Large-scale reorganisations eat up scarce resources and seldom demonstrate value for money. We believe that scarce resources should be targeted on front-line services and on trying to understand where the weaknesses in organisational defences are to be found. Initiatives to eliminate those weaknesses and so increase safety and service quality should be the priority.

In short we believe that the Government has fallen into the trap of believing that lasting improvements can be brought about by heavy-handed top-down initiatives. In their ideal world Ofsted will point the finger and a new commissioner and a new trust will sweep in - like the proverbial cavalry - to reconfigure services. But in reality this type of approach is unrealistic. It will fail to engage those people who actually do the work, causing a more stressful working environment, and it will fail to identify the systematic and structural weaknesses that underlie poor performance and safety failings.

What is required is to create a learning culture in which the people who do the work feel free to explore how things go right and how things go wrong and to propose and research improvements; in other words, promoting a just reporting culture. In contrast blame cultures, in which bullying and threats impede thinking, are inherently unsafe because fear prevents people from challenging the hierarchy and initiating change. Only through the development of a just learning culture can an organisation achieve real progress towards making children safer.