Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Well said Steve McCabe!

Children and YoungPeople Now reports that Steve McCabe, Labour’s shadow children’s minister, has raised serious concerns about whether Ofsted should continue inspecting children’s social care services. 

He is reported as questioning whether Ofsted is adding anything beneficial.

He is quoted as saying that Ofsted “… seems to pride itself on riding into town, having a press conference, and then riding out.”

He says that Ofsted seems to have lost touch.

He is absolutely right!

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Manifesto Time

The general election campaign is hotting-up in Britain. On 7th May 2015 the British people will elect a new government. In the meantime the various parties are publishing their manifestos. Not to be out done I thought I should publish my own.

First of all here’s what will NOT be in my child protection manifesto:

There will be nothing about privatising child protection services. Privatisation is a complete distraction that has enormous potential to be very disruptive. And there is absolutely no evidence that it would make any positive difference. The worst-case scenario that child protection could be handed over to companies and organisations that have no previous experience and no demonstrable competence is too dire to contemplate. So privatisation is definitively out.

There will also be nothing in my manifesto about mandatory reporting. I am in favour of all professionals and other practitioners always reporting child abuse and neglect (which is what it says in current guidance) but I am NOT in favour of using the criminal law to punish people who make mistakes. And it goes without saying that I am completely against jail sentences (like those proposed by the Prime Minister) for social workers and teachers who get it wrong. The blame culture actually makes children and young people less safe, because it makes workers afraid to talk about – and therefore learn from – their mistakes.

And, unlike UKIP who published their manifesto yesterday, there will definitely NOT be anything in my manifesto about “wholesale reform”. What we need is steady incremental progress, not some chaotic reform designed by people who have no relevant experience or expertise and lots of untested opinions.

Enough of the negatives, here’s what will be in my manifesto:

The pervasive theme of my manifesto is that of a learning culture. That is a culture in which a premium is placed on understanding why things go wrong and progressively changing practices and organisations to try to reduce the probability of things going wrong again. It wouldn’t be a ‘no-blame culture’ (because professionals and other practitioners who engage in deliberate wrongdoing should face the consequences) but it would be a ‘just culture’ – one in which people who make honest mistakes are not blamed and individuals are never scapegoated because of organisational failings. It would be a ‘reporting culture’ – one in which people were respected and rewarded for talking openly about human error and learning from mistakes to make their organisations safer.

Cultures like that are not brought about by legislation, but government could provide a national lead. It could set the tone and model the appropriate behaviour in how it responded when things went wrong. Not caving in to the ranting of the popular press every time there is a tragedy would be a good start.

The next item in my manifesto might not seem at first sight to be closely related to the last, but it is. I would take away from Ofsted responsibility for child protection and children’s services inspections. In my view Ofsted is very much part of a name-and-shame culture. It has NOT contributed to learning how to do things better – it just says: “This is wrong, put it right”. The methodology of its inspections is suspect and it has never satisfactorily addressed allegations of lack of independence, stemming from the re-writing of inspection reports following the Baby Peter tragedy. Ofsted seems to have little corporate knowledge of child protection, or organisational safety, or good management practice. Its inspections are judgmental and often process focused. Even its attempts to engage with children and young people and other service users are tokenistic. In short it is not fit for purpose. In its place I would create an organisation that researched child protection, investigated when things went wrong and carried out inspections that focused on improvement, not on putting organisations in a ‘sin-bin’.

I would abolish Serious Case Reviews. They are resource hungry, time-consuming, slow to report and they mostly provide only a very partial picture of what has gone wrong. They seldom address the question ‘why’ and as a consequence they seldom make sensible suggestions for improvement. Instead I would task the organisation with which I would replace Ofsted to carry out investigations into child protection disasters, much in the same way as the Air Accident Investigation Branch carries out enquiries into civil air crashes.

I would establish a national funding formula for child protection that made it very difficult to under-fund services. Central government should commit to an open and transparent arrangement, so that everybody concerned should be able to see how much is being spent by whom on what.

I would make the provision of therapeutic services (such as mental health) to children and young people who have been abused and neglected a part of that formula. It is just not acceptable that those who have suffered should be left without appropriate support.

I would consult on returning central government responsibility for child protection and children’s social care to the Department of Health. Located where it is, in the Department for Education, it sticks out like a sore thumb. I would like to see much closer working together between local authority children’s services, community health services for children and families, paediatric services, accident and emergency services and child and adolescent mental health services. That could most easily be led from the Department of Health.

Talking of community health services for children and families, I would allocate sufficient resources to see a full return to a fully staffed Health Visitor service. It is a disgrace that numbers of Health Visitors were allowed to decline and have not yet been fully restored, when what we need are more than ever because of changing demographics.

For a long time I have been unhappy with the way in which local government has brought to child protection and children’s services those regrettable aspects of local government culture with which we are all familiar:  bureaucracy, procedures, hierarchies, targets, some aspects of local politics – I could go on. As I have already said I’m not a great advocate of disruptive change, so I wouldn’t want to do anything too dramatic too quickly, but I think it is time to consider ways in which the professional ethos of children’s services could be better preserved within the existing local authority framework. Perhaps some semi-autonomous organisation within the local authority, but involving input particularly from health professionals would be a good idea. I would also like to see much greater use of multi-disciplinary teams and inter-agency working. The multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASH) are proving to be a quiet success, so the model of professionals from different agencies working in single teams could be broadened to include other parts of the service. Having a clinical psychologist on hand as part of the team or a paediatrician specifically tasked to support and train social workers and other professionals would be a great resource.

In terms of capital spending I think something sensible needs to be done about IT for child protection. Supportive IT is what is required, something that makes the job easier and quicker and makes records more accurate, accessible and reliable. We need something that reduces the amount of administration and frees-up professionals to work face to face more often with children and families. We need something that reduces stress, not increases it. We need new fresh thinking.

My final thoughts concern training. I think all different kinds of professionals engaged in child protection, no matter what their area of expertise, should undertake training in how to work more safely. The kind of training I have in mind is often referred to as Human Factors. It is non-technical training that teaches people to understand how they make errors at work and gives them some basic skills in avoiding or mitigating errors in the workplace. It isn’t very expensive. Government could and should fund it.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The same old story

Every year I say the same thing to myself – surely it can’t keep going on like this. But it does. Since 2010 the number of care applications in England recorded by CAFCASS has gone up and up. In March 2015 it was the highest figure ever (1,066). That’s a whopping 16% increase compared since March 2014. 

Care applications received


[Source: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/news/2015/april/march-2015-care-demand-statistics.aspx]

Meeting that kind of extra demand obviously puts a great strain on services. More and more court time is required. Professionals have to devote more time to more and more cases coming before the courts. There is a need for more and more foster placements, residential care places and adoptions. More and more resources are required to meet children’s everyday needs and their needs for special resources.

I’m sure that most if not all of these children need to be subjects of care proceedings. I’m also sure that they need the best possible service from local authorities, other agencies and the courts. But I’m not clear how they can continue to receive that when there are chronic shortages of children’s social workers, pressurised departments and the prospect of more and more cuts.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Those Ofsted ads keep popping up

There’s an annoying little advertisement for the post of social care inspector at Ofsted that keeps popping up on my screen, when I’m trying to read something else.

Somebody who left a front line job in local authority social work to join Ofsted is quoted in the ad as saying that she has "made more difference "in a few months at Ofsted than she did in fifteen years of practice.

This conveys completely the wrong message: (1) it puts practice down, when what is most important is the right service at the point of delivery, not at the point of inspection; (2) it undervalues the work of practitioners and overvalues the work of inspectors; (3) it suggests that top-down is the route to improvement – Ofsted knows best – when what is needed is continuous improvement by those that practice, not endless prescription by those that can only preach.

The wrong approach to misjudgements in child protection

You may not have time to read the whole the report of the hearing of the Health and Care Professions Council into the conduct of two Lancashire social workers, one of whom, a team manager, has been suspended for one year.

You can however find a good summary of the case in Community Care.

We are told that the social worker failed to visit a family where an allegation of serious child sexual abuse had been made and that the manager failed to ensure that the social worker undertook the necessary assessment.

I fully accept that children may have been put at serious risk as a result of misjudgements in this case, but that is what they were – genuine misjudgements. There is no evidence in the report of the hearing of any kind of deliberate wrongdoing, only of making mistakes that could have had serious consequences.

I believe that suspending the team manager, who it is said had an exemplary work record prior to these events, is a highly punitive sanction, which is likely to have negative consequences not only for the profession but also for the safety of children and young people. Let me explain.

Making decisions in child protection work is always fraught with difficulty. The quality of information is often uncertain, not least because there are frequently conflicting findings and opinions. Add to that the fact that decisions are often made under great pressure of time and serious shortfalls of resources. So the potential for misjudgement is readily apparent.

Then remember all we know from the study of organisational safety. Psychologists like Professor James Reason tell us that complex decision-making is an error prone process and that we need to focus continuously on improving organisational defences, not dwelling on issues of who is to blame for particular errors.

Another psychologist, Professor Sidney Dekker, has detailed how looking for ‘bad apples’ actually results in decreased safety. That is because the pursuit of people who make professional errors results in reducing the willingness of other professionals to be open and honest about their mistakes. A defensive blame culture results in obfuscation and concealment. It results in knowing less about the errors that actually occur and so results in organisations becoming less safe.

If the Health and Care Professions Council is confronted with cases where professionals have engaged in deliberate wrongdoing then I have no problem at all in it imposing punitive sanctions. Or if there is evidence of somebody who regularly and systematically makes dangerous decisions, then suspension is probably necessary to protect members of the public.

But this case appears to be one of a single, admittedly serious, misjudgement that we are told was very much out of character. The correct response should not be to blame anybody. The safety of children and young people is much better assured by creating the conditions in which the reasons for the error are explored and understood. The individual concerned should be offered any necessary support and re-training to try to reduce the probability of the error being repeated; not plunged into disciplinary proceedings.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

No Surprises

I am pleased to see that the Local Government Association and the Public Service People Managers’ Association have published a “member guide” to recruiting and retaining qualified social workers. 


There were no surprises to me in its core messages, which just seemed to be good commonsense. The authors of the document conclude that qualified social workers stay in council employment longer when they:
  • Feel valued and supported
  • Have good management, good supervision, good training
  • Have a supportive team and colleagues   
  • Have advice, expertise and emotional support
  • Have good work-life balance and career progression
  • Have clear priorities and appropriate caseloads
  • Are able to practice reflectively
  • Have effective administrative back up and IT systems
  • Have job security
  • Have access to flexible working practices
Who would argue with that? It is just good commonsense. But I fear there are lots of places where it still doesn’t happen. I wonder why?