Thursday, 28 April 2011

Children's Social Work - Recruitment and Retention

It was interesting to hear Andrew Adonis on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours yesterday discussing the state of children’s social work. 

Adonis, who was among other things a junior children’s minister in the last government, seemed to be in favour of recruiting the ‘brightest and the best’, by introducing social work’s equivalent of the Teach First charity which places ‘exceptional graduates’ into ‘schools in challenging circumstances'

Sadly I think he misses the point. It is not just a matter of giving people more support and status. The problems with recruitment, and particularly retention, in children’s social work are very deep seated. They concern the fact that the job has become progressively harder to do because of ever more prescriptive guidelines and regulations and the introduction of the Integrated Children’s System (ICS), which forces practitioners to complete assessments based on ‘exemplars’ which hinder, rather than help, effective decision-making. Add to that the pervasive blame culture and it is not difficult to see why so many people come into children’s social work only to move on.

The best starting point is to think much more creatively about how to re-design both jobs and organisations to make children’s social work more do-able. This is not just a local matter, because many of the obstacles are to be found in government guidance and the imposition of working practices, through ICS, which are both unrealistic and unnecessary. There needs to be a radical simplification of regulation and guidance and the replacement of ICS with systems which actually support practice, through reducing bureaucracy and making effective case recording less burdensome.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Disturbing Trends?

There is more evidence this week of increased demand for child protection services.
In the year ending 31st March 2011, the NSPCC’s Helpline referred more than 16,000 cases to local authorities, a huge increase of 37% on the previous year.

Helpline managers believe this increase results from members of the public being more aware of child protection issues and being more willing to act if they have suspicions.

Also researchers at Cardiff University’s Violence and Society Research Group report a 20% increase in the number of children under 11 who needed emergency hospital treatment as a result of violence last year.

This is in contrast to other age groups where injuries from assault requiring hospital treatment fell by more than 10 per cent. The rise in the number of younger children requiring treatment follows an 8% increase in 2009.

Upward trends in child abuse and neglect are always disturbing, but sometimes result from changes in reporting practices. However, a clear-cut issue that will not go away is that the load on agencies – especially children’s social care – as a result of increased referrals is increasing substantially.

Given the long-term staffing and resource problems that afflict the provision of child protection services in the United Kingdom, there is every reason to view these figures with apprehension, if not alarm. Whatever the recommendations of the Munro Review are, they will not amount to a quick fix. In the meantime the system looks set to struggle to deal with substantial surges in demand without increased resources or improved working practices.  

Sunday, 17 April 2011

When splitting-up is the right thing to do

A committee of MPs has come up with a sensible recommendation: Ofsted should be split into two, one part dealing with inspection of education and the other with inspection of children’s social care.

This conclusion is, of course, blindingly obvious, the only puzzle being why anyone should have ever wanted to subsume children’s social care inspection into a schools’ inspectorate  in the first place.

Let’s hope the government gives this matter urgent attention. But there is no reason why we need to wait for legislation in order to see some change. Ofsted could begin preparing for a split right now by doing the following:
  • Ensuring that the right kind of expertise is brought into an embryonic children’s social care inspectorate at all levels - people with substantial research and practice experience of child protection and services for looked after children are required
  • Engaging systematically with leading academics and highly experienced practitioners expert in child protection and social care
  • Conducting thematic inspections focused on identifying good practice and exploring risk of service failure and how resilience can be increased
  • Abandoning preoccupation with targets and achieving procedural compliance - by developing an inspection regime based on informing and supporting the continuous improvement in the quality of services as perceived by children and young people
It would also be good to see some real management knowledge and experience brought in. And by 'management' I don't mean administration and bureaucracy. I do mean an intelligent understanding of how to design and operate complex services in a turbulent, at times  volatile, environment.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

What is the impact of the cuts?

Judy Cooper’s article in Community Care yesterday should set alarm bells ringing.(
It reports that a survey of 170 social workers revealed that 82% believed child protection thresholds have increased in the last year. Comments by the respondents were worrying, suggesting that in their experiences clear cases of abuse and neglect were not being actioned and that the Common Assessment Framework and the Team Around the Child were being seen as alternatives to Section 47 enquiries and Child Protection Plans.

We do not, of course, know how representative this sample is, but in the absence of information to the contrary it should signal grave concern. Despite assurances from central government that local authority cuts will not fall on child protection, there is no telling how, in times of unparalleled austerity, things will work out on the ground.

Ideally I would look to the regulator, Ofsted, to undertake urgently some thematic inspection work to monitor the impact of the cuts on child protection, but I am not aware of any such work currently in progress or being planned.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Listening to Children – not to systems

Important and useful research by the University of East Anglia, and funded by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, has just been published. Don’t make assumptions: Children’s and young people’s views of the child protection system and messages for change, written by Jeanette Cossar, Marian Brandon and Peter Jordan, is essential reading for everyone engaged in providing child protection services.

The study looked at children’s views of the child protection system. The messages from the research are unequivocal: children involved in child protection inquiries must be listened to and their views respected. One important recommendation, among many, caught my eye:

"Local authorities should recognise the importance of the child’s relationship with the social worker and organise the work so that social workers can get to know children, and are not viewed as remote but powerful figures."

That flies in the face of trends in recent years to re-engineer child protection social work through the introduction of computerised assessment tools and highly structured approaches to child protection inquiries. Yes, I am thinking of the Integrated Children’s System here! Social workers cannot make trusting relationships with children if they are spending lots of  time in front of computers and are seen by children and their families as bureaucrats who are just collecting information.

Another recent publication lends weight to these conclusions.

Bradford Safeguarding Children Board’s Serious Case Review Executive Summary Regarding a Child who was born on 17/4/2000 and died on 18/2/2010 ( draws attention to some of the adverse “… effects of electronic recording systems, protocols and pro-forma requirements…” which, it is argued, “… may constrain lateral thinking and initiative”. The review states that “… it is important that (these systems) should not erode the role of human intelligence in making connections between historical events”. The conclusion drawn is that “… practitioners should be encouraged to be ‘curious and to think critically and systematically’ in order to better understand the risk of harm to children” (p 22).

To summarise: we need child protection social workers who listen attentively and respectfully to children and young people and who are capable of building trusting relationships with them. And they need to be curious and to be capable of critical, lateral thinking and initiative. What we don’t need is people who are driven by systems, protocols and pro-formas which have been designed by civil servants and software developers!

I think the writing should now be on the wall for the Core Assessment, in particular, and the Integrated Children’s System, in general. I am not arguing that social workers don’t need to make careful assessments of children’s needs – just that the way to do this is by building strong relationships with children, gaining their trust and thinking critically and imaginatively about what to do next.