Thursday, 30 June 2011

A Good Read

Whilst sailing somewhere above 71 degrees north earlier this month, I needed a good book to while away the endless hours of daylight. I found it in Harry Ferguson's Child Protection Practice (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).

The great thing about this book is that it is primarily concerned, not with the macro world of child protection, but with the minutiae of everyday practice. Ferguson looks at such seemingly mundane events as performing a home visit or taking a child somewhere in a car and explores their significance and their potential as opportunities for effective child protection practice. There is an excellent chapter on the importance of touch in protecting children, which is a welcome counterblast to what he calls "deeply troubling cultural norms" surrounding touch.

This is just the kind of book we need: one that bases it's conclusions in an accurate understanding of what child protection practice involves and what can be achieved.

It is very readable too.

Bureaucracy - It’s not just the UK

The Irish Examiner reports that Irish social workers are at loggerheads with the Health Service Executive (HSE) over a new standardisation process for dealing with child protection cases.

Echoing concerns in England about the ICS system, it is said that research indicates that the proposed system in Ireland (The National Child Care Information System Business Process Standardisation Project) would result in “… social workers spending 60%-80% of their time at their desks”.

The system’s purpose is said to be “… to increase the amount of data the HSE has available on children interacting with care services”.

It is sad to hear that the Irish Government seems set to emulate the same mistakes as the British.

Unmanageable Caseloads

Children and Young People Now report on research by the Children's Workforce Development Council that found that social workers in 57 English local authorities are dealing with between 20 and 30 cases at a time. In six authorities average caseloads exceed 30. The report also found significant levels of vacancy and agency working.

We need to remember that when we say "20 cases" this will always involve more than 20 children, since most families have more than one child. So many social workers are dealing with say between 30 and 40 children at any one time. That’s a lot of children to be concerned about and to keep track of.

Just consider home visiting, an absolutely essential part of working with children who are at risk. Most workers will be lucky to be able to conduct three home visits in a day and I expect that the average is about two. If you allow for a two hour meeting and one hour’s travelling time, that leaves just 30 minutes to write up the visit – and then half a day has been used up. So with a caseload of 30 it would take 15 working days to visit all the families – one home visit every three weeks.

But that does not allow for the fact that the social worker will be involved in other time consuming things as well. There will be meetings, child protection conferences and court hearings. Not to mention training. And then there is the administration! Some estimates say that more than 60% of a child protection social worker's time is absorbed in administration.

So it is not surprising that quite a lot of vulnerable children are not receiving frequent visiting from their social workers: monthly or even worse. And it is not surprising that social workers are often overtaken by events and fail to spot significant changes in children’s circumstances. In fact their workloads make it very likely, if not inevitable.

More Appeals

I read in yesterday's Evening Standard that other Haringey staff, sacked after the Baby Peter tragedy, have followed Sharon Shoesmith in winning the right to appeal against their dismissals. The summary sacking of children's social care workers involved in the case sent out a most unhelpful and damaging message. I hope that they are successful in their appeals.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Ofsted should be split

I was very sorry to hear that the Government has apparently decided not to split Ofsted.  

Children and Young People Now identifies two reasons being put forward in support of this decision:

  1. Structural change is less important than the quality of inspectors and inspection methods
  2. A single inspectorate is necessary to mirror the structure of local council services.
(“Ofsted survives calls for it to be split”, 28 June 2011

The first reason is better than the second. Every-one would agree that in the final analysis it is the quality and competence of personnel that matters. But the question is whether the right people will be recruited and retained if they have to work in a small corner of a large organisation which is culturally distinct and which operates according to a different knowledge base. Understanding schools is quite different to understanding child protection.

The second reason is really quite silly. There is no reason at all why the structure of inspectorates must reflect the structure of local council services. Apart from anything else it is not the case that all local authorities have similar structures. And we certainly wouldn't expect that the structure of (say) the Nuclear Inspectorate would have to change because some of the companies it inspects had diversified into other activities, like retailing or financial services!!

Furthermore this reason contradicts the first, which insists that structures are really not very important. And it seems to miss an important point completely: effective inspection comes about because inspectors are knowledgeable about what they are inspecting, not because what they are inspecting has a particular organisational structure.

The problem with Ofsted inspecting child protection services, as I see it, is that they have inappropriately attempted to subsume child protection inspection under inspection methodologies which are designed for school inspection, and they have failed to develop any kind of knowledge centre about child protection best practice. These are singular failures which are reflected in inspection reports which are often uninformative and formulaic.
I think the government will rue the day it decided on this course of action. What is required is an inspectorate for child protection which is not limply configured to arbitrary organisational boundaries, but an inspectorate which can develop and focus its expertise on the issue of child protection across a range of organisational and professional boundaries. That would truly support multi-agency "working together".