Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The role of the Independent Safeguarding Authority

When I started this blog I promised myself that I would not become sucked into wider safeguarding issues. But the mess that seems to be emerging around the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) is more than adequate justification for a short diversion.

This week the ISA's chair, Sir Roger Singleton, has been widely reported as having predicted that registration with the ISA will become usual not only for those who work with children and vulnerable adults, but also for those who don't. The argument seems to be that plumbers, electricians, hoteliers and even undertakers will see that being able to declare their organisations free from undesirable employees confers a commercial advantage. ISA checks may become a bit like ISO 9000, the Kite Mark or Investors in People.

This is so far from what was originally envisaged by Bichard that it is breathtaking. And the argument can be pushed even further. If hotels gain competitive advantage from employing only ISA-checked employees, then why not have hotels which only allow ISA-checked guests? They would be really safe for families with children, or would they?

The truth of the matter is that criminal records and related checks are fairly crude defences against child abuse. The nursery worker recently sentenced for abusing and taking obscene photographs of children had a previously clean record. And sophisticated child abusers can always find ways to deceive complex bureaucracies.

So widespread checking can only encourage a false sense of security. It will not make children any safer and it is likely to consume time and resources that are best devoted to other things. And it will upset and alienate the general public from the cause of safeguarding children. Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph writes this week that the ISA is turning the entire adult population into a collection of suspects. Sadly he may be right. The best way to safeguard and protect children is by educating, engaging and motivating people; not by alienating them.

Friday, 23 October 2009


The OFSTED report on Cornwall Children's Services is pretty depressing stuff. I was struck from reading it by how much focused on process rather than on outcome. And there was too much about "leadership" and "performance management" for my taste and not enough about the actual quality of the service. It confirms my view that inspections are blunt instruments. They tend to light upon things which are important to the inspectors, but which may be less important to those receiving the services.

There are some really worrying things in the Cornwall inspection report: insufficient capacity and large caseloads for example. But I get fed up with inspections which make bland and self-righteous recommendations such as "Ensure children’s social care team managers have the appropriate skills and expertise and consistently follow guidance, procedures and protocols". Such inspections fail to look behind the issues to find their causes. In my experience a pretty common reason for not following procedures is that it isn't possible to get the job done if you do. And there are two explanations for that: too few resources and too many procedures.

ADCS Criticism of OFSTED

Kim Bromley-Derry, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has fired a warning shot across the bows of OFSTED with talk of “time consuming and rigid” inspections which undermine the quality of practice.

Some may think that this is knee-jerk self-protection, but I think Kim has a point. I don’t believe that quality services come about as a result of inspection regimes; you can't inspect quality in. And I don’t believe that inspection by a body which is both relatively inexperienced in the field of child protection, and which seems to to be in awe of ministers, is any guarantee of good standards.

We need to think very carefully about what OFSTED is for. It’s not there to point the finger and to label work as “inadequate” or “awful”. The only point in its existence is to improve the quality of services. Instead of league tables and dispiriting pejorative judgments, why not carry out some thematic research into increasing safety and promoting quality in child protection?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Children's Commissioner for England Row

Who should be the new Children's Commissioner?

A lot of people are getting hot under the collar about the choice and about the appointment process. My own view is that I believe that the Children's Commissioner should be user, not producer, focused. We need a Children's Commissioner who can truly understand and represent the interests of children; and articulate the needs of every child and young person in England, especially those who are most disadvantaged, such as abused and neglected children.

We might ask ourselves whether a person who had excelled in a career providing local authority services is best qualified to fulfill the role. My instinct says "no". The kind of person I would most like to see as Children's Commissioner is a person who has excelled in listening to children and young people and giving them a voice; not a bureaucrat or an administrator but an advocate and a campaigner.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

More care proceedings

There are reports today that the number of care applications for the three months to September 2009 was up by nearly 50% on the same period last year. In June 2009 the highest number of cases since records were kept by the Children and Family Courts Advisory Support Service was reached.

Clearly such a massive increase in expensive legal proceedings, and the subsequent costs of caring for looked-after children, will place a heavy load on local authorities which may not be sustainable. There is now a real prospect of a melt-down in services, with rising volumes of work, staff shortages and a demoralised workforce.

There is no evidence of an appropriate response to this crisis from DCSF. Ministers are not usually slow to comment on a whole range of issues but seem strangely silent on this one.

OFSTED Report on SCRs

Eventually I found the report which is the subject of the last post - report number 090101. It does NOT contain a clear statement of methodology NOR a clear definition of the evaluative terms "good", "adequate", "inadequate". There is no discussion of how the SCRs promoted organisational learning. As I thought, they are assessing means not ends. On the positive side there is some analysis of the characteristics of the cases on which the reports are based, but the overall conclusions are unsurprising and uninspiring.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

SCRs in the News Again

SCRs have hit the headlines again this week, with a study by OFSTED showing that 1 in 3 reports is "inadequate". According to The Guardian only 22% of the reports inspected were found to be "good".

I have tried to find the source material for this story on the OFSTED website, but the best I have so far achieved is to find a spreadsheet which contains only some raw data. It does not include any discussion about how the categories used by OFSTED to classify the reviews are defined. Nor does it include any discussion of the methodology. Do OFSTED inspectors simply read the reports or do they make further enquiries about the case in order to determine the extent to which the report is accurate? And do they attempt to measure how much learning from the SCR has occurred in local agencies? I expect that most of the evaluation is based on the report itself and how well it conforms to OFSTED guidelines.

Sadly we seem to be drifting into "ends-means displacement". What is important about the SCR process is not the report itself, or for that matter the SCR process, but the organisational learning which is supposed to accompany it. There is a danger of creating a purely bureaucratic beauty contest based around the formal characteristics of the written documents themselves.

As I have argued before, I do not think that SCRs are the best means of learning about child protection mistakes. A process carried out by a small group, operating in conditions of secrecy, and which results in most people only ever seeing a highly edited executive summary, must have severe limitations. Rather than producing an annual evaluation of SCRs, with its similarities to school league tables, OFSTED would be better advised to conduct thematic research into how best to promote learning in child protection.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Should more children be taken into care?

Public discussions about when children should be taken into care are important. This week Shadow Children’s Secretary, Michael Gove, is reported as telling a conference fringe meeting in Manchester that, while not fully supporting Martin Narey’s statements earlier this year, he felt there needed to be a reassessment of the assumption that keeping a child with its birth parents was the “overwhelming default option”.

What discussions of this type often fail to consider are the real world dilemmas that face social workers in making this type of decision. Care proceedings are a high threshold, the more so since the introduction of the Public Law Outline which requires local authorities to explore alternatives to care more thoroughly before entering proceedings. If an application for a Care Order fails, then subsequent work with the family in question can be very difficult, even though the child may continue to be subject to a child protection plan. The parents may not unreasonably refer to the decision of the court as confirming that they are fit people to care for the child. They may feel resentful at the local authority’s unsuccessful recourse to law and be uncooperative with their social workers.

Not surprisingly in marginal situations local authorities may prefer, if at all possible, to continue working with the family without applying for a Care Order, effectively waiting their moment until success in the court is more assured. In the meantime they may be more likely to gain cooperation from the parents, who will, presumably, wish to avoid legal proceedings by working voluntarily with their social worker to improve the child’s situation.

In such circumstances “the best interests of the child” becomes a difficult probability calculation. A lower probability of the most satisfactory outcome (care leading to adoption) has to be balanced against a higher probability of a marginally acceptable, though far from ideal, result (working with the family voluntarily to improve the child’s situation). At the same time account must also be taken of the probabilities of eventualities such as re-abuse or lost contact. It is not surprising that with hindsight it may appear that the wrong decision has been made in a significant number of cases.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Some Good News

It was good to read in Children and Young People Now that Hertfordshire Children's Services have introduced an academy to facilitate the training of child protection social workers during their first year in post. My only hesitation is that this is news in 2009, rather than long-established good practice.

More detail on the Birmingham scrutiny report

At last I have managed to read the whole of the report into child protection services in Birmingham. It describes a history of under-performance over the last decade, involving issues which are said to be long-standing and for which there appears to be no quick remedy.

The report describes significant difficulties in recruitment and retention of staff, high levels of sickness absence and over-reliance on agency workers. The total effect is assessed as resulting in a 30% shortfall in capacity. Pay does not seem to be a crucial issue, but standards of accommodation for children’s social care staff are described as "shocking". It is believed that poor accommodation has a serious negative impact on recruitment and retention

The report describes high caseloads, with social workers spending “a high proportion” of their time completing records. This results in “extremely limited” contact time with children and families. These circumstances have been exacerbated by a sharp increase in care proceedings since December 2008. Duty and assessment teams are not coping with the volume of demand and lack of capacity in the care management teams creates a bottleneck, resulting in the duty and assessment teams having to hold cases. Screening of referrals is done by unqualified staff.

An audit of case files found that child care planning and practice was "unacceptably poor" in 53% of cases, "acceptable" in 39% and "good" in only 7%. Services for children in need are said to be “sparse”.

The authors of the report also identify a lack of clarity about what constitutes a referral and confusion and inconsistency of practice about when a CAF (Common Assessment) should be undertaken.

This report speaks for itself and does not really require further comment, although the issue of when a CAF should be undertaken is something which I would want to explore further. Perhaps the most important issue is the extent to which the difficulties outlined in the Birmingham report occur elsewhere?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Not fit for purpose?

The newspapers today are full of snippets from the Birmingham City Council scrutiny report into child protection in the city. As usual it seems difficult for members of the public (me, for instance) to find the actual report. What looks like a promising link on the Birmingham council website doesn't work. So I am relying on the sketchy details in the papers for this initial comment.

What struck me most strongly was the report in The Times that Birmingham was experiencing a shortage of experienced staff and 20% sickness absence. The Guardian talks of reliance on inexperienced staff and quotes Cllr. Les Lawrence (Birmingham's Lead Member for Children's Services) as saying that there is no quick fix for the problems of retention and recruitment of social workers, which he believes are national in scope.

It is mind-boggling that nearly a year after the furore over the death of Baby Peter we still seem to be discovering serious problems of this sort, rather than hearing about effective solutions. Despite all the promises of change we continue to be in a situation where the basic conditions for creating quality services are not being met.

Jet-set child protection

Almost immediately after completing my last post I landed on an article on an Australian website which discusses the issue of the Victoria State Government relying on British social workers in running its child protection services.

It’s a small world: our social workers go to Australia, US social workers come here. Where next? Maybe we should be worrying about the contribution to global warming as a result of all the air travel involved?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Social Workers from US and Canada

How disappointing it is to hear how Haringey Children’s Services is solving its recruitment problems (“Baby P borough takes on social workers from North America”, The Guardian 2 October 2009). There is nothing new about recruiting child protection social workers from abroad, but in the wake of the Baby Peter tragedy and the subsequent inspectors’ report (which criticised Haringey for over-reliance on temporary staff) it is particularly sad that dependence on workers with little or no experience of working in the British context continues to play an important role. Inevitably most Americans and Canadians will regard their sojourn to the UK as a temporary assignment.

Formal social work training is, of course, important. But it is equally important that people who have responsibility for intervening in family life have a sound grounding in the relevant law and understand the respective responsibilities of agencies. Hopefully social workers from abroad receive some briefing on the Children Act 1989, but to educate them in how our courts work and the roles of police, CPS, GALs, expert witnesses etc etc. is a tall order; not to mention the Public Law Outline!

Recruiting temporary workers, especially from overseas, is no solution to the types of problems which resulted in the deaths of Baby Peter and Victoria Climbie. Safe child protection services require a stable, long-term workforce of people who are committed to learn and grow in their jobs. The tabloid press, with whom I mostly disagree, are entirely right when they say that we need people with experience to intervene in families; in my view not "street-wise grannies" but professional social workers who have amassed years of experience.

The Social Work Task Force has come up with some ideas of variable quality about recruitment and retention. But the real issue is how to create jobs in which people will stay. Retention is just as important as recruitment, and it is not just a matter of pay and job titles and image. Crucially people must have the conditions in which they can work enthusiastically and creatively. And they must feel safe.

It's time to abandon the "quick fix" mentality. A good test of any new policy initiatives in this area would be if those of us who left the profession began to think we might want to return. With that in mind I will watch the work of The Social Work Task Force with interest, but sadly with not much hope.