Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Less hierarchy, flatter structures

A review from the College of Policing calls for less hierarchy in British police forces, involving a flatter management structure and more teamwork. It rejects what it calls the "heroic model" of leadership, in which officers simply carry out the will of the chief constable, and says that rank hierarchy tends to reduce the willingness of some officers to follow best practice and strive to develop themselves. 


Today Alex Marshall, the College of Policing’s chief executive constable, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there was an "insular attitude" and that chief constables often failed to listen to officers. He said there was a need for the police service to address issues of hierarchy, culture and consistency.

What is true of the police is true of other agencies that work in the field of child protection. If old-style command and control structures are dysfunctional for the police, they will be just as dysfunctional in other agencies. Organisations dealing with complex social problems and safety critical situations need to have organisational designs that are suited to the task. Flatter structures, less hierarchical cultures and managers who see their roles as being supportive of practice, not directive, are essential.

There needs to be recognition that people at the front line are often better placed to take decisions than those up the management tree, who often only have a partial grasp of the facts. It is vital to place an emphasis on practice, allowing practitioners to remain in practice, not having to move into management; to develop, and be rewarded for developing, increased practice skills 

If local authorities children’s services departments in England want to rise to the challenge set by the Department of Education, and to meet ministers claims that they are less flexible and less able to innovate than private or voluntary sector organisations, they need to start building structures and cultures that promote flexibility and innovation. They need to become as at least as ‘flat’ and as flexible and as non-hierarchical as Alex Marshall is calling for the police to be or, even better, more so.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Child sexual exploitation - police failings?

I was interested to read in the Daily Telegraph that Sir Thomas Winsor, the chief inspector of constabulary, has identified serious failings in police responses to allegations as an important factor in the child sexual exploitation scandals in Rotherham and other English towns. He is quoted as saying that senior officers were “principally responsible” for failures to investigate allegations.

Sadly there is a knee-jerk response within parts of the political establishment and the popular press, that when things go wrong in child protection, it is usually the local authority, and particularly children’s social care, which is to blame. Sir Thomas’ comments are useful in helping us to remember that, in a multi-agency (‘working together’) child protection system, failures are often a product of failures by more than one agency or dysfunctional interaction between agencies.

If police officers are unwilling to investigate or prosecute, then the local authority’s job can be impeded. With sexual abuse of teenagers by non-family members the local authority has limited powers to gather evidence concerning perpetrators and often lacks the means of doing so. For intelligence and surveillance information, which could establish that a young person is at risk of significant harm through sexual exploitation, social workers are often wholly dependent on the results of police activity.

At the very worst, different agencies can begin a spiraling process of convincing each other that problems do not exist. The police have not prosecuted, so the local authority has insufficient reason to intervene, which is interpreted by the police as according low priority to the case (or cases) which in turn results in less resources being made available for further police enquiries and so on.

Something similar also happened in the Baby Peter case, where the police did not pursue a prosecution of the mother, resulting in the local authority deciding that there was insufficient evidence for care proceedings, leading to the police believing that it was a low risk case etc. etc.

I believe that it is entirely unprofitable trying to decide which agency is more or less to blame in cases like these. The focus of attention, rather than being whom to blame, must be on identifying ways in which mutually reinforcing loss of situation awareness can be avoided in future.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The College of Social Work – further news

Children and Young People Now quotes Jo Cleary, the chair of the college, as saying that its board is working to ensure that the college’s legacy is “secured and retained”. Apparently the board is making arrangements to “make sure that there is a smooth and safe transition” of functions and resources. They propose to make updates on the details of these arrangements as they agree them.
Although I am not clear about how this situation can be avoided, it feels wholly wrong to me that the board which has presided over the college’s untimely demise should now be in sole charge of the funeral arrangements – and that the rest of us will just be informed of these in due course. Surely there should be some wider discussion about how the transition takes place and about what functions and resources are salvaged and by whom?
Whether the government has some role to play in bringing key stakeholders together or whether key groups within the profession can take hold of the issue I do not know. But I do not think it should be left to the college’s board to decide what its legacy will be.

An Expert Panel for Children's Services Workers

I read on the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) website that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is setting up an expert panel to hear and learn from people who work with children in the UK.

If you fit the bill, you can sign up for the panel at:

Potential respondents are assured that their identities will be kept confidential.

I think the NSPCC has hit on an excellent idea. I do think, however, that there needs to be a clear commitment that the findings of the survey will be published regularly and that their implications will be publicly discussed. An annual publication would probably be best.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Death of a college

The passing of the College of Social Work gives me no pleasure.

Sadly I fear that the college was doomed by the bizarre way in which local authority directors, ex-directors and other senior managers, dominated its board. For an organisation that was supposed to represent practitioners it looked far from convincing. And matters were not helped by the generally patronising approach characterised by claiming to be a membership organisation but not being able to allow its members to take control. No wonder not enough front-line social workers were attracted to join. The organisation just didn’t seem to be set-up to meet their needs.

The other sad thing was the way in which the college seemed to diversify into a bewildering range of activities and initiatives, producing all sorts of paperwork and committees but not focusing on the key benefits that would have ensured its legitimacy. To my way of thinking it was producer-focused (“let’s do the things that interest us”) rather than consumer-focused (“let’s deliver the benefits to those whom we are here to serve”).

David Brindle in The Guardian makes some good points about how the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) could now take on some of the functions of the College of Social Work.

I believe that that BASW is not simply a good candidate to raise the phoenix from the ashes; it is the only candidate. It has its own membership and organisation and is a true membership organisation. If it could be persuaded to inherit some, but by no means all, of the functions of the defunct college it would provide a means of saving something from the wreckage.

The crucial thing would be to define carefully the core functions for which a college of social work is required. What is its role in education and training to be? What are the key aspects of professional development that the college should address? How should it fulfill its policy function without becoming simply a sounding board for small groups of insiders?

A ‘college-light’ (without expensive and unnecessary activities) nested within BASW, at least for its fledgling years, could develop and grow by demonstrating its value to practitioners and winning their trust. Then the necessary cash for more elaborate activities might begin to flow. At some point in the future it could become independent, but only once its prospects were assured.

Top Down Task Force

The Prime Minister has announced a ‘task force’ on child protection to “…to drive forward fundamental reforms to protect the most vulnerable children.” 

Apparently it will consider reforms to the quality of children’s social work practice and leadership, promoting innovative models of delivery and overhauling the way that police, social services and other agencies work together locally.

I always feel a little queasy at the mention of ‘fundamental reforms’. In policy matters this is generally code for ill-informed and ill-considered changes designed to result in favourable headlines in the popular press.  But hey-ho, I thought, perhaps it will be different this time??

Then I read on to see the names of those who will be the members of this task force. All twelve will be senior government ministers. I can’t help asking what they actually know about the quality of children’s social work practice or innovative models of delivery or ways of overhauling the way that agencies work together locally.

One thing seems a certain bet. None of them will ever have had to stand on a doorstep on a cold night knowing that when the door is opened mum or dad will have to be told that this is a child protection visit; or to sit and listen to an agonising disclosure by an abused child; or to experience the wrath of parents whose child has been taken away.

Child protection in Great Britain does not need to be reformed top-down. Rather two things need to happen, both from the bottom-up. The first is that policy makers need to create the conditions in which those who do the work, and so understand the issues and processes, can contribute to a sustained process of continuous improvement. The second is that we all need to listen much more closely to what children and young people can tell us about their experiences of abuse and neglect and of being protected from it.

All that we know about the management of quality and change suggests that the impact of top-down imposed change is usually confusion and chaos followed by a gradual return to the status quo. There is little point in that, unless, of course, the purpose of the exercise is not safer children but more of those favourable headlines.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Ofsted - not up to the job?

There's a salutary piece on the BBC website about Ofsted's schools inspections. Apparently the organisation is shedding more than a thousand school inspectors who have been deemed not up to the job.


It really doesn't inspire confidence. How can an organisation have functioned for years with a large number of its most important employees being unacceptably below par? 

The BBC quotes Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers as saying: "Ofsted is consistently behind the curve - tinkering with an inspection system which is no longer fit for purpose."

For years I have been saying that Ofsted is not up to the job of inspecting child protection. Perhaps now somebody will take notice. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Temporary staff and turn-a-round managers are no solution

There’s a good article by ‘Social Work Outlaw’ in Community Care.

The gist is that after an unfavourable Ofsted inspection, the local authority has to bring in temporary staff and turn-a-round managers because long-serving permanent staff and managers have left or been moved on. The result is that casework is focused only on short-term goals and that the organisation is managed by people who are “… bullish, aggressive and oh-so testosterone fuelled with macho posturing”.

This is a dark and depressing vision, but I suspect that in many ‘inadequate’ local authorities it is pretty near the truth. It is another example of how Ofsted is part of the problem, not a solution to it.

All children deserve equal protection, regardless of cultural context

The judge who said that child protection professionals should make allowances for immigrants who slap their children, is wrong on moral grounds. All children deserve the same level of protection, wherever they or their parents come from.

But the judge is also wrong on practical grounds. In day-to-day practice there is no way of making the kinds of distinctions she calls for. Attempting to do so would cloud and confuse decision-making to the detriment of all children.

The more we – judges, social workers, medics, police officers, politicians, journalists, members of the public - can all share a similar concept of child abuse and neglect the more likely we are to work effectively together to reduce it and to protect children from it. Moral relativism just opens the door to confusion and indecision.

Child Protection in England - between Ofsted and the cuts

I strongly recommend reading the detailed account in the Guardian of The Clockoff survey about the well-being of employees in public and voluntary services in Britain.

It reveals that staff work long hours, take few breaks and experience high levels of stress. More than 50% reported being stressed either all or a lot of the time. On average, employees reported working an extra seven hours a week. Nearly 20% don’t take any break during their working day and less than 25% take a main break of 30 minutes or more.

The article quotes Jo Cleary, chair of the College of Social Work, as saying that social workers “… report juggling highly complex workloads, with little time to reflect and plan their work. She says that spending cuts have placed  “unbearable” pressures on social workers who have to undertake “… complex, delicate work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.  This she believes to be dangerous.

You might want to put these comments and the results of the survey into the context of Ofsted’s most recent report, which concerns children’s services in Sandwell.

The inspectors blast the local authority for not ensuring that “…cases of high risk or actual harm to children have a statutory assessment of need to enable children to be kept safe”. The local authority is said to have failed “…to apply effective thresholds or to respond appropriately to known or potential risk, which means that vulnerable children do not always receive services at the right time or at the appropriate level”, so leaving some children at risk. And it is said that “… too many child protection cases have had recent changes of social worker, causing drift and delay in progressing work.”

It sounds to me like the people in Sandwell are experiencing some of the pressures identified in the survey and mentioned by Jo Cleary. But I couldn’t find in the inspectors’ report anything more than a passing mention of resources and certainly no analysis of the impact of spending cuts on the level of services or the morale of staff.

It seems to me that child protection services in Britain are increasingly being caught in a pincer movement. On the one hand government makes it more difficult to do the job by cutting resources and on the other Ofsted waves its big stick and points to shortfalls in service quality which are laid at the door of local practitioners and managers. 

I don’t think that's fair on public sector workers and I don’t think it's an effective way to protect children.