Monday, 29 March 2010

Fees abolished - one small step towards simpler systems?

It is a great relief that the Government has finally agreed to abolish court fees in care proceedings cases ( I have only just got around to skimming Francis Plowden’s report on this issue, which recommended the abolition of fees, and I was very struck by paragraph 22 of this report which says:

In carrying out this review, I have been struck by how complex the arrangements for safeguarding are, how poorly understood the interdependencies are by outsiders, but also by some working within the area, and by the poor quality of data.
[Francis Plowden, Court Fees in Child Care Proceedings, Ministry of Justice,  September 2009]

Governments and other policy-makers often seem to confuse greater complexity with improvement and so the child protection system has become ever more complex. But a more complex system is one which is harder to understand and one in which changes often have unexpected or unintended consequences. We should always seek, wherever possible, to make child protection systems simpler and more transparent. The lean principle, which has been so successful in manufacturing and some commercial services, should be rigorously applied in child protection.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The costs of new procedures

Research from Loughborough University funded by the Local Government Association confirms that child protection social workers are systematically overworked and shows how workload pressures have increased in the wake of the Baby Peter tragedy (

The researchers looked specifically at the cost of implementing Laming’s post Baby Peter recommendation that every referral from another professional must be followed up by an initial assessment. They found that as a result there would be more than a 90% increase in the number of initial assessments, requiring 2,000 extra social workers at a cost of £75 million per annum.

It has always scared me that reports of enquiries, such as Laming’s, have a habit of recommending numerous procedural changes without taking into account the resource implications. There is always a one-off cost in changing working practices but un-assessed proposals usually result in unforeseen recurrent costs as well. Often managers have to make savings in other activities to fund the resulting shortfalls. The overall impact is that services 'evolve' in a haphazard, unplanned and illogical way.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Should the law be changed to require social workers to see a child alone?

I wonder what on earth the NSPCC is doing in calling for this change in the law? Their representative on the BBC's Today programme this morning didn't really explain which law they want changing or how. Every-one thinks that child protection social workers carrying out Section 47 enquiries should, where appropriate and possible, speak to a child alone and statutory guidance (Working Together, paragraph 5.62) already urges that enquiries should involve "separate interviews" with the child who is the subject of concern. So is a change in the law necessary and is it desirable?

The BBC News website speaks of the NSPCC calling for "... a law making it obligatory for social workers to see children alone..." and quotes an NSPCC source as saying that this would strengthen the hand of social workers who could say to parents "the law requires me to see the child alone".  So it appears that they are thinking of a law which places a duty on a social worker or a local authority. But unless such a duty is hedged with complex caveats and exceptions it will not be workable. In the case of infants, for example, it makes no sense to speak of "separate interviews" and in most cases no purpose would be served in seeing an infant away from her or his carers. This is also true for many toddlers. It is not part of the purpose of section 47 enquiries to alarm and upset small children. Then there are cases where a child is already very distressed and where it is clear that separation from parents would make this worse. And there are cases where older children themselves refuse to be interviewed alone. Surely no-one is suggesting that social workers should be put in a position of forcing children to co-operate with their enquiries?

It seems to me to be quite wrong to seek to place a duty on social workers which they will not always be able to discharge without taking steps which are unreasonable or even uncaring, especially when there seems to be no objective evidence that to do so would actually make children safer. I am surprised that the NSPCC, with its wealth of practice experience, appears to be calling for what seems to be a blunt instrument. And I can't help feeling that this policy initiative is part of the prevailing Zeitgeist in which recourse to law and regulation is seen as the first port of call in improving child protection practice, when what is really required are more experienced and confident practitioners who are properly supported and resourced by their agencies.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Fostering Crisis

The chronic shortage of foster carers is emphasised once again by research from the Fostering Network revealing the very low rates of pay which most foster carers receive. While pay is probably not the prime reason for most people becoming foster carers, the very low rates revealed in this research mean that many people will have to ask themselves the question "Can I afford to foster?" Inevitably in many cases the answer will be "No".

Having an adequate and well-funded fostering resource is essential. Any Government which declares itself committed to effective child protection must be willing to fund a sufficient supply of highly motivated and committed foster carers.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Khyra Ishaq and the Home Education debate

It would be a very sad if attempts to uncover what went wrong in Birmingham become confused with the raging debate about the regulation of Home Education. Ministers would do well not to be drawn on the causes of the tragedy until what actually happened becomes clearer.

One thing that is certain is that producing yet another set of regulations is not the appropriate response.