Thursday, 28 August 2014


There seems little doubt that a primary cause of the lack of appropriate response by services to the disgraceful events in Rotherham was a deep seated failure to listen to and empathise with children and young people. In that regard Rotherham embodies many of the features of the similar, if smaller-scale, scandals in Rochdale and Oxford.

What struck me most in reading the report of the enquiry into Rotherham was the amount of inspection, audit and scrutiny that appears to have taken place over the period in which the widespread sexual exploitation was occurring. To be sure not all the inspection/audit/scrutiny reports were without criticism but the failings they identified were minor compared to the gross failure of systems that was taking place and which remained undetected.

That seems to me to illustrate what poor instruments inspections and the like are when it comes to driving quality. I expect that in Rotherham on balance most of the boxes got ticked, even if from time to time one didn't. But inspectors apparently saw nothing of the monumental inability to meet the needs of some of the town's most vulnerable children.

For me the moral of this tragic story is that the control/compliance culture in which statutory children's services operate in Great Britain is not a safe culture and it does not result in quality services. If we are ever to have safe services that meet children's needs for protection and care, then we need to re-think things by empowering those who actually deliver the services to research the causes of failure and to make improvements. And we need to have services which are driven by listening to, and acting on, the perceptions and insights of children and young people. not faceless bureaucrats.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Listening to child protection staff in Vermont

I was interested to read that child protection social workers in Vermont are being asked by legislators about how they see the problems facing them in effectively protecting children.

Staff shortages and staff turnover were high among the issues they identified. One social worker is quoted as saying that the volume and pace of work “… is relentless and unrealistic”.

It is good to see that legislators in Vermont have decided to listen to those who do the work, rather than just relying on experts and policy-makers and senior managers. I would like to see much more routine involvement of front-line staff in service improvement. By and large they know where the strengths and weaknesses of the services are to be found and often know of small but significant improvements that can be made.

One of the Vermont social workers is quoted as saying that she and her colleagues were no longer “… struggling behind closed doors”. I only wish that in Britain we could open up the debate by not only inviting, but also encouraging, those who do the work to speak out about how it could be done better.

The same principle holds for those who receive the services. I find it astonishing that the authorities think they can deliver safe and effective child-focused services without systematically asking the children and young people who receive the services about their experiences and their ideas for improvement.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Probation Service and Child Protection

It is very hard to see how after all the years of operating under the slogan of “working together” key agencies, such as the Probation Service, are still struggling not to work in silos. 

The report gives examples of some Probation Service staff failing to recognise clear cases of children at risk of abuse and neglect. What is less clear is why some people are failing to get the basics right. It may not be an individual’s lack of knowledge, skills or training that is to blame. The culture of the organisation and the working environment need to be explored for possible causes.

Care Proceedings – an all time high

Although the trend line now appears to be flattening, the fact that July saw an all time high in the number of applications for Care Orders in England has to be of concern.

What Cafcass chief, Anthony Douglas, calls “the continuing volatility” in demand for Care Orders makes it very difficult to plan – both for Children’s Services and for the Courts.

From some of the more detailed information that Cafcass publishes on this issue, it can be seen that since 2008 the rate of demand for Care Orders has increased markedly in some local authorities but not in others.

In Southend, for example, the rate per 10,000 children more than tripled from 3.1 in 2008-9 to 9.7 in 2013-14, whereas in neighbouring Essex over the same period the rate actually fell from 4.8 to 4.0. 

Some authorities with very high rates in 2013-14 are Blackpool (22.2), Coventry (18.1), North East Lincolnshire (20.7), Nottingham (18.0), Southampton (21.6), Torbay (23.1) and Wolverampton (24.7). These figures compare with a national average rate of 9.2, in 2013-14, which has risen from 5.9 in 2008-9.

I for one am not clear where the extra resources to deal with all this extra work are coming from. I wonder if they know in the Department for Education? 

The title says it all...

A poignantly titled article in the Guardian is written by an anonymous child protection manager who found the work involved living with ‘depression and dread’.

It is important to hear the voices of front-line staff. This account not only recounts the anxiety and stress associated with the risk of making critical mistakes, but also details bullying by senior managers, who tried to protect themselves and pass the buck down the chain when things went wrong.

If we want people to spend their careers in child protection – so that their knowledge and experience cumulate over a working life – we have to design organisations in which people feel safe and in which they are treated with respect and justice. 

Attention to the question of how to build better organisations doesn’t really seem to rank high on the agendas of government or the children’s services elite.  They remain more concerned with telling people how to do the job, rather than helping them to survive and develop in a stressful working environment.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ofsted and the ever-growing list of failed authorities

I have just been reading in Children and Young People Now about Ofsted’s report on child protection services in Buckinghamshire, which is described as ‘damning’. The authority was found to be inadequate with the lowest possible rating across the board for looked-after children, child protection and care leaver services.

In July Ofsted also found Knowsley inadequate.

The same round of ‘single assessment framework’ inspections has also found Birmingham and Coventry and Slough to be ‘inadequate’.

Looking at the report on Buckinghamshire the word ‘under-resourced’ comes to mind.
It mentions high caseloads and lots of unallocated cases, resulting in poor record keeping and poor services.

I can’t help wondering what the effects of Ofsted’s ever-growing list of failures are. The problems authorities are experiencing are not particularly unusual; if you don’t resource services properly you are unlikely to get high quality! Yet the cumulative effect of all this disruptive and expensive inspection doesn’t seem to be an open acknowledgement that better resourcing is required. Rather inspectors march on to point the finger of blame at the next ‘inadequate’ council, apparently without anybody drawing the simple overall conclusions.  

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Stop this privatisation nonesense

An article by Professor Ray Jones in the Guardian makes a pretty convincing case for continuing to fear that the Government intends to privatise child protection services in England, despite assurances to the contrary.

I agree with Jones that privatisation is likely to be folly, especially where a few large companies (which have experience of outsourcing but not of child protection) appear to be the most likely to gain the contracts. 

It appears to be an example of ideology overruling commonsense. It is a bad idea. It should be stopped.

Down in Somerset …

Like other child protection authorities that have received negative Ofsted reports, Somerset seems to be experiencing continuing staff shortages, especially of experienced social workers.

One thing is certain. Without the right personnel, the right service cannot be delivered.