Sunday, 27 April 2014

Policy and children's brains

I have to say I found Zoe Williams’ article in the Guardian on the subject of young children’s brains a bit frustrating. She argues that neuroscience – in particular brain scans of neglected children - has had an important role in defining early years and child protection policies in the UK and elsewhere. She says that the claim that a child's brain can be irrevocably damaged during the first three years of life shapes government policy on adoption and early intervention. And she argues that there are some important doubts about whether the science behind the claims can withstand critical scrutiny. 

I think that the mistake may be in trying to justify early-in-life-intervention with neuroscience, thus risking losing the argument if the science turns out to be wrong. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist (or for that matter a Bowlby or a Freud) to know that very young children who are abused and neglected suffer horribly as a result and that some of the consequences of the abuse may be longstanding. Early-in-life-intervention is really self-justifying – it is a moral and social evil to allow very young children to be abused and neglected in the hope that their parents will eventually stop - and, even if the scans of children’s brains turn out to be misleading, that would be no reason to conclude that  stopping abuse and neglect at the earliest possible moment should not continue to be at the heart of policy.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Openness, honesty and power in child protection

Professor Ray Jones makes some good points in his article in the Guardian about how to improve inadequate child protection services.

Top of my list is his insistence on an ‘honest and open’ culture.

Jones argues that it is likely that services will have become inadequate because there is a pre-existing “culture of top managers being uninformed”. Thus there is a need:

·       To build trust and commitment
·       For managers to be visible and available
·       For there to be reduced distance between tiers of management
·       For “difficulties to be heard, rather than to remain unspoken”

What Jones does not explore, however, is why these factors are so often absent. The list above sounds eminently sensible, but all too often we encounter organisations providing children’s services in which top managers are remote and sometimes even arrogant. Elaborate hierarchies have developed and senior managers do not want to hear about difficulties. As I was once told by a senior manager when I was a team leader, “We don’t want to hear about your problems, we only want to hear about successes”!!

The greatest dangers are encountered in the territory of admitting to mistakes and errors. Recent experience suggests to me that there is still little national or local commitment to developing cultures in which people are not just allowed to talk about errors and failings, but positively encouraged and rewarded for doing so. But without open, honest frank and widespread discussion of how things go wrong, however will they be put right?

In the meantime organisations that willfully fail to learn from mistakes will continue to provide services that are inherently unsafe.

My own view is that the difficulties stem from longstanding authoritarian attitudes at the top of children’s services, in which small powerful groups wish to retain for themselves the ultimate say about how services will develop and be structured. Openness and honesty imply distributing power more widely, which is anathema in certain quarters. All my experience in policy work suggests that whatever political persuasion holds sway, or whatever ideas are fashionable, there are small groups of authoritarian individuals who do not want widespread discussion and open learning: they want control and compliance.

Sadly getting rid of ‘inadequacy’ forever will only be achieved if these power structures are dismantled; and open, honest and just cultures are put in their place.

Thursday, 17 April 2014


I’m not really surprised to hear, as reported in Children and Young People Now, that the Government is considering outsourcing children’s services in England, including child protection.

It fits with the ideological perspective of our current government and provides a convenient and easy way for them to appear to be doing something, without having to do too much hard thinking.

This is no place for a political diatribe about whether privatisation is a good or bad idea. In Britain it seems to have become a knee-jerk response of governments of all political persuasions. My main concern is that reorganising who delivers the services is a complete distraction from the main issue of how to make struggling services better.

Passing child protection to the private and voluntary sectors is no guarantee of improved quality. Nor is it a necessarily a precursor of poorer standards.  But it will take years for new arrangements to bed down, with very uncertain outcomes.
In the meantime everybody’s focus will be on how to outsource - not on how to deliver and improve services.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Mandatory Reporting - the wrong approach

I am sorry to see that those calling for mandatory reporting of child abuse in England have now managed to get 100,000 people to sign their petition.

My view is that mandatory reporting is entirely the wrong approach. It will increase the already prevalent blame culture and as a result will make child protection disasters more likely, not less.

Professional errors that resulted in Daniel Pelka’s tragic death did not spring from wilful neglect of duty. They sprang from people simply getting it wrong; not realising how bad Daniel’s situation was; being conned by his plausible mother.

Criminalising mistakes in child protection practice is a very bad idea. It will result in defensive practice, not safer children.

Stepping up but not staying in?

I was interested to see that the Department for Education has published a research report into the views of Step Up to Social Work trainees [1]. Step Up to Social Work is a master’s level professional qualifying training route into children’s social work intended to attract academically ‘high flying’ candidates. It involves a partnership between employers and universities.185 trainees started the training in September 2010 followed by and 227 in March 2012.

The programme’s contribution to reducing the workforce shortfall is modest, government figures showing that there are approximately 3,800 children’s social worker vacancies in England [2].

What caught my eye on page 118 of the report was a discussion about the students’ future plans. Only six per cent expressed an intention not to stay in social work at all, but, what the report’s authors refer to as “far more comments” referred to spending only a short period in children’s social work, usually about two years.

The report quotes examples of several students who clearly intend to move on quickly. One student is quoted as saying that s/he did not intend to stay in social work for longer than two years, hoping eventually to work with young people “… in another less confrontational context”. Another was seeking “… more direct work with families…” and hoped to move into therapeutic work. Another said that budget cuts and high caseloads made the job less appealing.

All that confirms my own view that the main cause of excessive vacancies in children’s social work in Britain is failure to retain and not so much failure to recruit. A workforce that is composed largely of recently qualified people who intend to move on as soon as the opportunity arises is not what we want. We want a highly experienced workforce of people who have chosen children’s social work as a long-term career.

Sadly retention is not just a matter of concocting some fancy little schemes with zappy sounding names. It is about changing the culture of the organisations that employ children’s social workers. That is hard but it is the only lasting solution.

[1] The Views of Step Up to Social Work Trainees - Cohort 1 and Cohort 2 Research report April 2014 by Dr Mary Baginsky and Professor Jill Manthorpe, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College, London 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Learning Organisations

There’s an account of an excellent interview with Peter Senge [1] on the RSA [2] website, in which he explores how the concept of a ‘learning organisation’ can be applied to the activities of governments and the public sector. 

One of the things that Senge says is that intolerance of people making mistakes is a major problem for the public sector. On the contrary, argues Senge, public sector organisations need to create the conditions in which it is safe for their people to learn from mistakes.

And he uses the expression “successive approximation” to describe how organisations should slowly progress and learn. This expression has its origins in engineering – it involves people throughout the organisation designing, prototyping, redesigning, re-prototyping and building, evaluating, redesigning etc. etc. Senge says it is a ‘hard philosophy’.

If you work as a practitioner or as a manager in children’s social care in Britain, I think you can quickly give your organisation a ‘health check’ by asking how nearly it approximates to the ideal that Senge is talking about. Does your organisation create conditions in which it is safe for people to learn from their mistakes, or are people afraid of discussing their errors? Do improvements happen through trial and error (‘successive approximation’) or are changes devised by small groups of experts and imposed from above?

Answers please to 

I bet I know what most people would say, and it wouldn’t be good.

[1] Peter Senge is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He is famous as the author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation 

[2] Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Is it any wonder that child protection social work in England is not a developing profession?

Professionals usually undertake and publish research to advance the knowledge base of their professions – lawyers write in law journals, doctors in medical journals, engineers in engineering journals and, in Britain, social workers are supposed to write in journals such as the British Journal of Social Work. (

There you might expect to find articles on subjects such as how to protect children from abuse and neglect better.

But – and it is a very big BUT – unlike other professionals many social workers work for organisations that insist that managers, and even local politicians, control the ability of employees to publish research and to join in open academic debate.

Just to test things out I wrote to one of the largest local authorities in England, a large county council, and asked them, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, what their policy was on their employees publishing. I wrote:

Dear (County Council),
Please tell me what guidelines, rules and policies apply in your authority to the publication, in academic, professional and trade journals, of articles authored by people who are employed by the authority as social workers in the children’s services department or in a comparable role?

And here is what they replied:

Dear Mr Mills,

(The) County Council’s general stance is that any request for an employee to be involved in any media publication needs to be agreed by their Manager, Service Director, (the Council’s) Press Office and relevant Cabinet Member (although the Cabinet Member would not usually need to see academic articles unless they related to policy issues).

If you want to see the whole Freedom of Information Act response go to:

Perhaps I am just naïve, but this seems to me to be a recipe for suppressing knowledge and debate. Professionals need to be able to act like professionals and open discussion and dissemination of research findings is vital to any developing profession. Without it knowledge will not develop, professionals will not become better at their jobs and abused and neglected children and young people will be the ultimate losers.

Ofsted – and the TIWPIR problem

I’m becoming an Ofsted bore. I’m the kind of person you encounter in pubs, blowing the froth off a pint of beer while ranting on and on, in what is obviously an obsessive way, about how Sir Michael Wilshaw - the former head teacher who is now Ofsted’s chief inspector - is really an alien from outer space who is fiendishly planning to abolish early childhood altogether!!

[See for details of Sir Michael’s latest foray into the world of policy and for why nearly 250 experts describe his proposals as ‘catastrophic’.]

I may be a bore, but sometimes bores are right. And I think I am right about one thing at least. Some Ofsted reports concerning local child protection arrangements are simply not much use, they are a waste of time, they are unhelpful, they are not beneficial – I could go on … and on.

An unhelpful or useless report just describes a situation, without providing much evidence or analysis. There is not a lot of point knowing, for example, that assessments take a long time or that there are cases that haven’t been allocated, if we do not know why. And, perhaps naively, I would expect the inspector to look at alternative explanations of the shortfalls and to evaluate each of them in turn. After all it’s not uncommon for different groups within an organisation to offer radically differing accounts of how and why things are going wrong.

Unhelpful inspection reports can also be spotted by the quality of their recommendations. If I were marking a management student’s assignment I would expect some consideration of the various options, each one weighed according to its pros and cons. Most Ofsted reports don’t do that – in fact I haven’t seen even one that does. We just get the inspector’s opinion. That’s fine if it happens to be right, but what if it is wrong?

However the most unhelpful reports are the ones that resort to making crass and blunt recommendations of the TIWPIR (“This Is Wrong, Put It Right”) variety. Several of the recommendations from the recent report on Coventry’s Children’s Services have TIWPIR written all over them.

Take for example just three of the twenty-one recommendations for the ‘inadequate’ Coventry Council to action.

At paragraph 31 the inspector says: “All plans for children and young people should be focused on their assessed needs, with clear outcomes and timescales by which progress can be measured.” Clearly the inspector doesn’t think that some child protection cases can involve uncertainties and dilemmas that can make simple planning and objective setting difficult!

At paragraph 41 the inspector tells the Council to: “Ensure that there are sufficient adoptive and foster placements to meet the specific needs of children for appropriate permanent placements.” That’s simple then! Perhaps the inspector hasn’t heard that there is a national shortfall in the number of foster parents and long established difficulties in finding adoptive parents for some children with high or special needs.

And at paragraph 43, the unfortunate people in Coventry are told to: “Ensure that findings from audits, together with reliable performance reporting, are driving improvements to promote high standards of professional practice so that children are safe.” If it were that simple then all managers would have to do is to gather a bit of data, analyse it and improve. Hey presto! There would be no more child protection tragedies and no more re-abuse following intervention. It all sounds so easy … until you think about it for a couple of seconds, after which you might realise that knowing what to measure and how to improve in child protection are fundamental difficulties which have consistently defied simple solutions. Maybe the inspector hasn’t heard?

I don’t like TIWPIR. But just imagine how it feels if you are a member of staff struggling to deliver a service in an organisation under great pressure and in very difficult circumstances; an organisation with acute staff shortages and high levels of sickness absence, resulting in high caseloads and unallocated cases, combined with failing computer technology and mindless bureaucracy driven by decades of governments believing that people can’t work effectively unless they fill out a form …

Just imagine how it feels to those people to be told by somebody with a nice little job working for a nice little inspectorate: “This Is Wrong, Put It Right!”

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Pressure of Work

The NSPCC’s report on twenty indicators of child safety (“How safe are our children?) has just been published.

The indicators seem to confirm the picture I outlined in December 2013 of a sustained increase in work for social workers engaged in child protection.

The figures show an unrelenting increase in the numbers of assessments undertaken, the number of children subject to a child protection plan and the number of children looked after due to abuse or neglect.

However, the NSPCC points out that the rate and number of children referred to children’s social care have decreased year on year since 2010/11, suggesting that thresholds have risen.

Last month the government published some statistics on the children’s social care workforce. Although these do not provide much interesting information about trends (e.g. in numbers over the last ten years) there is enough in them to see that the workforce is under strain.

There were just over 3,600 full time equivalent vacancies of children’s social worker posts in England, a vacancy rate 14%. The turnover rate was 15%. And children’s social workers took on average just under one day per month in sickness absence. There was substantial reliance on agency workers, equivalent to 3,250 full-time equivalent posts.

None of this can be easy reading for government ministers. There are all the signs of increased pressure of work and no real increase in resources. People who are over-worked and stressed often fail to make good decisions and they are more likely to make mistakes.

Should “Emotional Cruelty” be a crime?

The government now seems to be seriously considering the arguments of Action for Children, and other parts of the children’s services establishment, for a new criminal offence relating to the emotional abuse and neglect of a child.
Introducing an offence of “emotional cruelty” is being considered. 

Lots of people seem to be in favour, including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who at least expressed some reservations, saying that families should not be “micromanaged in their living rooms”. According to the Daily Telegraph Clegg says the law should ‘strike the right balance’. Sadly he doesn’t say how.

I have expressed concern about this type of law before. ( My main concern is that I don’t think it will make any child safer and could well have the opposite of the intended effect. Let me explain why.

Firstly it is widely agreed that the civil law (the Children Act 1989) does not need to be revised to protect emotionally abused and neglected children more effectively. If a child is subject to emotional cruelty the local authority can institute care proceedings in exactly the same way as would happen if the abuse were sexual or physical. What everybody needs to be better at is recognising emotional abuse and neglect and being more confident in reporting it so that action can be taken quickly.

Secondly there seems to be an assumption that threatening people with punishment is likely to stop them abusing their children. I struggle to imagine what it would be like to live as a child in a home in which the parents had to be prevented by criminal sanction from engaging in emotional abuse. Children need love and affection and acceptance. Not parents who have to tow the line when they would much rather be abusing their child!

That brings me to the third point, that many people who emotionally abuse their children do not do so deliberately and wilfully, but usually because they themselves are emotionally damaged. Mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency and having themselves been the victims of poor parenting are factors which make some people unable to form normal and appropriate relationships with their own children. Parents like that need help, not punishment.

The proposed new law begins to me to look simply punitive – especially if prison sentences of up to ten years are going to be possible, as some reports suggest. And there is just no evidence that being punitive towards inadequate parents is likely to make any child safer. Indeed it might make them less safe.

Many abused and neglected children do not want to see their parents imprisoned. They want the abuse and neglect to stop. Knowing that heavy sanctions against a parent might follow a disclosure could lead to a child remaining silent.

Then there is the issue of how the new offence will be proved in the criminal courts. It will be very difficult to draft legislation that does not open the floodgates to wholly inappropriate prosecutions. On the other hand juries may be reluctant to convict people who appear more needy than criminal. All that portends, in my view, to what might be bad law, either because it is too easy or too difficult to convict.

We need to ask ourselves whether opening this can of worms is what we need at the present time. With the NSPCC reporting this week that child protection services across the country are "struggling" (, I think a new criminal law on emotional cruelty has all the hallmarks of policy that distracts from the important issues. A new law might be popular with some voters and with the children’s services establishment, but it doesn’t do anything about critical issues of child safety and welfare. As children who shouldn’t die continue to do so because services cannot deliver adequate protection and help, ministers may seem to be fiddling away with a punitive snippet of policy the main effect of which will be to garner a bit of support from certain tabloid newspapers. We don’t need that.