Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Round and round and round we go ….reflections on the tragedy of Liam Fee

There is a dizzying air of déjà vu hanging over all the column inches devoted to the dreadful murder of toddler Liam Fee. Cruel, manipulative and devious carers neglected, abused and killed the little boy, while he ‘dropped off the radar’ of statutory services.

Matt Forde, head of service for NSPCC Scotland, calls for more early intervention and a service model which is less ‘incident lead’ with a greater focus on children’s early years.

Social Work Tutor, in the Guardian, pleads for social workers to have more time for direct work with children and their families and less distraction from paperwork and administration.

The truth of the matter is that knowledgeable, concerned, thoughtful and influential people can come up with all sorts of plausible, innovative and interesting suggestions for change in the wake of a tragedy. But proposals, however sensible, in these circumstances have a habit of fading, like Shakespeare’s insubstantial pageant, and leave not a rack behind. In the wake of every tragedy, from Maria Colwell in the early 1970s onwards, bright and sensible ideas have been propounded and discussed and promulgated, only to be eventually shelved and forgotten.

My view is that if you want lessons to be learned you need to create an environment in which the people who do the work can learn. Hierarchical organisations which operate through rigid command and control structures, in which frontline workers are compelled to deliver ‘reforms’ that they do not support or understand and in which they fear to raise dissenting voices or admit to errors and failings, frustrate learning and so compromise safety and quality of service. A culture of blame and a climate of fear are the worst enemies of innovation and improvement and safety.

And it is utterly pointless for the government to bang on about innovation without taking positive steps to create and sustain the conditions in which learning and innovation can take place.

So the most important lessons we should be learning from Liam’s tragic death, and those of so many other children in similar circumstances, are not specific lessons such as ‘more early intervention’ or ‘less administration’. Rather we should begin by taking steps to build organisations and cultures which actively promote learning, rather than inhibiting it, and start ensuring that everyone involved in child protection work, at every level, is able to embrace continuous learning and improvement as a central part of their work.