Saturday, 25 March 2017

No good options?

Although it contains few surprises, there is a great deal that is important in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s report of the Inquiry into Children’s Social Care in England, entitled No Good Options.

The report is nicely summarised in the Guardian.

Four main themes emerge from the report.

Firstly, the inquiry found that resources are not keeping pace with demand for services and that, as a consequence, early intervention services are being cut back. Children’s needs had often grown significantly before any support is put in place, resulting in more children being taken into care with the paradoxical consequence of higher costs being incurred as a result.

The report describes a very worrying national funding picture in England, a finding which is confirmed by the Local Government Association, which has warned that councils face a £1.9bn funding gap for children’s services by 2020.

Secondly wide variations in practice and spending between local authorities are noted. The inquiry found that rates of looked after children varied from a low of 22 per 10,000 of the population in one authority to a high of 164 per 10,000 in another. The local authority with the highest rate of looked after children had seven times the rate of the lowest. Likewise, it was found that local authority spending per child in need ranged from £340 in the lowest spending local authority to £4,970 in the highest. The inquiry was unable to establish the reasons for these variations and the report calls for research to discover the causes.

Thirdly, the inquiry found that high turnover of social workers and multiple care placements had a profoundly adverse impact on the stability of services and the quality of care. In some areas agency staff were found to account for more than 40 per cent of children’s social workers. Poor retention of children’s social workers was said to contribute to ‘churn’ in services.

Finally, the Inquiry found that children and young people’s participation in the services they receive was patchy. In many places children in care are not routinely involved in decisions made about them. In some cases, children do not know the reasons why they are looked after by the local authority.

While the report’s findings are sound and hard-hitting, its weakest section, in my view, is the one that considers what needs to happen next. The report’s recommendations to Government are peppered with anaemic phrases such as ‘conduct a review’, ‘incentivise investment in early intervention’, ‘strengthen duties’, ‘consult’, ‘commission an inquiry’, ‘develop a strategy’, ‘adopt a more flexible approach (to intervening in failing children’s services)’ and ‘establish a national program for developing senior leaders’. In stating the problems, the report pulls no punches, but the anodyne conclusions come as a considerable disappointment. It is almost as if the report’s authors had run out of steam.

I would have liked to see a real challenge to the Government on the issue of funding. It is simply not possible to continue to under-fund services while taking no steps to revise the offering or manage increasing demand. The inevitable result will be a thinner and thinner spread of provision with the eventual breakdown of services an ever-looming prospect. It doesn’t need a ‘review’ of funding to work that one out and the Government should not be pandered to on this issue. Rather ministers need to be confronted with the unsustainable situation they are creating and be challenged to change course urgently.

The issue of variations in practice and spending also requires urgent action to discover what is going on. Commissioning an independent inquiry into this issue, as the report recommends, sounds too much like kicking the issue into the long grass. And, although independent research may be useful, it is likely to take years to complete. The only route to a quick response to this issue is for the Department for Education and local authorities to take an urgent look at what is happening themselves and to put in hand actions to address the causes of the variation forthwith. If a motor manufacturer discovered huge variations in the quality of the brakes of its cars, it would not be satisfactory to suggest setting-up an independent inquiry and waiting a few years for it to report. The issue would need to be addressed immediately and with gusto. Children and young people in need of protection deserve no less.

Likewise, rather than the report’s ponderous recommendation of developing a ‘strategy’, there should be no delay in setting in-hand actions to reduce ‘churn’. It takes little reflection to list improvements which are likely to result in greater retention of children’s social workers, few of which are currently being pursued. Of great importance is ensuring that motivators, such as job satisfaction, recognition and opportunities for personal growth, are designed into social work jobs and nurtured in everyday practice. Absolutely crucial is attacking the blame culture, so that children’s social workers and others feel safe in talking openly about individual errors and service failures. That is a precondition of creating organisations which learn and improve rather than comply and atrophy.

And it takes more than a few nudges from central government to ‘incentivise’ local authorities to “… improve participation practices so that vulnerable children play a meaningful role in their care”. What is required is a fundamental change in culture which puts children and their experiences at the centre of service design, rather than prioritising management fads and government obsessions and clever wheezes thought up by clever people.

It is that little word ‘culture’ which is so starkly missing from the recommendations of this report. But thinking about how culture can be changed is the beginning of a journey to a place where there are some good options. Doing the right thing when resources are stretched painfully thinly is never easy. But inventive and responsive services, which place children’s needs and wants at the centre and adapt and learn, will cope much better with a harsh environment than heavy-footed, top-down-bureaucracies with their ethos of authority, compliance and blame.