Monday, 31 August 2015

West Berkshire

Published in May 2015, Ofsted’s inspection report on services for children in need of help and protection in West Berkshire rated the local authority ‘inadequate’ and found that:

“There are widespread or serious failures that create or leave children being harmed or at risk of harm. Leaders and managers have been ineffective in making improvements in this area.”

“A significant proportion of child protection enquiries, assessments and plans for children are poor.”

This week Children and Young People Now reports that Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, has appointed a private company to help tackle the perceived failings in West Berkshire.  Apparently he has said that the council should work with the company, Exploring Choices, with the aim of agreeing an improvement plan by the end of September.

I had a look on the company’s website  and found that the members of ‘the team’ were largely, if not exclusively, from an education background – former head teachers and the like. Yet Ofsted’s concerns about West Berkshire are very much focused on child protection. That, I think, raises some important issues.

Ever since responsibility for child protection was moved from the Department of Health to the Department for Education, more than ten years ago now, it has seemed to me that there is a significant danger that children’s social care will become just a small part of the much larger schools and education sector. Transferring responsibility for the inspection of children’s social care to the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, only added to this danger. Inevitably ideas about how to manage and improve schools percolate into debates about how to provide children services and how to protect children more effectively. All too often child protection is inspected as if it were just another type of school.

However, there are some very important differences between managing and evaluating schools and managing and evaluating child protection, and other children’s social care, services. Here are just a few that I’ve thought of:

Child Protection

Child protection services are professional services. Task variety is high, but volumes of work are relatively low (only a small proportion of children receive this type of service). There needs to be a high degree of customisation for each child or family, with different service-users receiving quite different types of service. Importantly the service is most often taken to the child/family, rather than the child/family coming to a service centre.
Schools, on the other hand, are not quite mass services (such as a railway network or an airline) but they are ‘service shops’ which deal with high volumes and offer only limited customisation (there is a national curriculum, not an individual curriculum, and students are offered only limited choices about what and how they study). In contrast to child protection services, service users attend a facility (the school), which is where most of the service is delivered.

Child protection services experience variation in demand. At the present time there is a strong underlying upward trend in work; and there are also peaks and troughs in demand many of which are difficult to predict.
Usually schools experience little variation in demand. They have a particular number of places that are filled at the beginning of the school year and once the school is full no new students are recruited unless a student leaves.

Child protection services are provided by more than one agency. Children’s social care, the police and health services have to work together to respond to a single referral. All these agencies have other demands on them at any particular time. This may limit their ability to respond to a particular incident.
Schools are managed by a single management hierarchy headed by a head teacher. Usually schools are not heavily dependent on other agencies and organisations to deliver services.

Child protection services are emergency services that ideally should be able to configure rapidly to deal with a new incident. The pace of work may vary substantially between times when a new incident has occurred and times when no incident is occurring (rather like the fire and ambulance services).
In contrast schools run to strictly implemented pre-planned timetables with work as far as possible being equally distributed throughout the school day.

It is often hard to assess the quality of interaction between social workers, on the one hand, and children and families, on the other, simply by observing practice. The quality of interventions depends on a long-term series of contacts, decisions and actions that is usually not completed within the span of an inspection. For this reason inspectors often rely heavily on reading written records.
It is possible for inspectors to observe much of the service a school offers, simply by observing its teaching. There is a wealth of hard data relating to the performance of the school (e.g. examination results).

It is hard to directly observe child protection practice, not least because the emotions of some of the participants are running high. Observer effects could put lives at risk.
It is relatively easy to observe teaching, although there may be an observer effect.

Child protection is safety critical. Potentially every service episode involves significant risks to a child or young person. Potential violence towards workers is often a factor.
Usually the school environment is well controlled and the risks to children, teachers and any third parties are low.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The unnecessary criminalisation of children in residential care

You don’t have to live or work in Northern Ireland to be interested in an excellent report by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission examining the rights of children in care.

The report covers issues such as moving looked after children, delays in the adoption process, children’s and young people’s feelings of powerlessness and their strong sense that they are often excluded from decision making about their care and their futures. The report strongly evinces the right of the child to be heard and taken seriously.

There is a very good summary of the report in Family Law Week

The part of the report that particularly caught my eye, however, concerned the criminalisation of children who live in children’s homes. The report says (page 158) that some young people in residential care are “… being penalised for offences in a way that they would not if they resided with their parents”.  This appears to result from the practice of calling the police out to deal with incidents that occur within residential homes, something that the authors of the report believe “…should only occur as a measure of last resort, and that the focus should be on finding alternative means of dealing with incidents”.  They believe that “… the practice of police involvement and potential subsequent engagement with the youth justice system had profound negative implications for young people’s subsequent life chances”.

This reminded me of one of my posts last month relating to the findings of a recent report about policing in the whole of the United Kingdom, (In harm's way: The role of the police in keeping children safe – July 2015), which stated:

“We were surprised to find examples of children who had been accused of offences such as pushing a sibling, criminal damage in their (own) children’s home, or for wasting police time by running away from home. Sometimes, children were accused of lying or perverting the course of justice when their accounts of offences against them were disbelieved.” (Page 11)

Two reports in two months pointing to the same very undesirable practice is more than just coincidence; it is worrying. As a matter of urgency, somebody somewhere needs to follow up these concerns and put in place steps to ensure that looked after children are not unnecessarily criminalised.

Friday, 21 August 2015

A Good Outcome

It is the best outcome. It is the best ending to the sorry tale of the college's demise.

Inevitably BASW will have to change in response to its new responsibilities. It will have to work out ways of incorporating its new work into its existing structures and culture.

And I hope that the membership of BASW will increase substantially in response to these changes. Social workers need a strong, independent and proactive association developing the profession on their behalves.

The key word in the preceding paragraph is ‘independent’. BASW is a membership organisation, with a strong tradition of operating independently. It must continue to do so. It must never become a backdoor through which the √©minence grise of the establishment -  the collective backroom machinations of politicians and civil servants and senior managers - seeks to control and manipulate. In two or three or four years time I do NOT want to be reading any more stories like that of Amy Norris whose College of Social Work blog was apparently censored at the behest of a government adviser.

On the contrary I want to be reading stories about how a reinvigorated BASW is providing a measured, independent and constructive voice that contributes daily to the creation of more professional and higher quality social work services. 

I have every hope that this will happen. But those who tried to pull the strings of the College of Social Work now need to learn their lessons and keep their distance.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Striking the wrong notes

I think Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, strikes all the wrong notes in her article in the Guardian at the end of last month.

Focusing on the closure of the College of Social Work and the forthcoming consultation on mandatory reporting and the proposed offence of wilful neglect, she argues that “social work needs to earn back public trust”. She says:

“… we do as a profession have to ask ourselves some very serious questions about why the college failed, and why the public mood is such that the charge of wilful neglect is being discussed. We have to start looking a little closer to home. It is very hard, but very necessary.”

This seems to suggest that it is somehow the fault of practitioners that the College of Social Work failed, when in fact the college failed because it did not meet the needs of practitioners. And it seems to suggest that there is some logic behind attempts to introduce punitive sanctions for social workers who make mistakes. It points the finger at those who do the work and says that it could all be their fault.

That neatly sidesteps the painful truth that the systems and institutions and organisations in which people work are prone to failure. And it neatly shifts the responsibility for failings from politicians and civil servants and senior managers, to those who actually do the work.  

As a society we need to build systems and institutions and organisations which are capable of gaining public trust, not blame front-line workers for systematic weaknesses that are beyond their control.

Censorship? A way of life.

Amy Norris, a child protection social worker who also acted as a media spokesperson for the now defunct College of Social Work, describes in the Guardian how a year or so ago she began to develop reservations about how the College was being run. Apparently a blog she had been writing for the College was taken down after “a prominent government adviser” had questioned Amy’s comments on a report on social work education. She complains that she was being censored.

Despite this Amy remains strongly committed to the concept of a College of Social Work and deeply regrets its passing. She feels that things would have been better had more people joined.

I can understand how she feels but what disturbs me in Amy’s story is that it reveals the ingrained paternalism that seems to ooze from every pore of the children’s services establishment. My own experiences of trying to get people at the top – civil servants, MPs, ministers, senior managers, academics - to listen to new ideas (such as Human Factors training for child protection workers or Critical Incident Reporting as a means of studying error in child protection) has revealed to me just how much of an establishment-enforced consensus there is. Small groups of faceless people sit in offices and decide how it is going to be. They expect that the rest of us will just get on with it and implement their visions. People with different ideas may be tolerated for a short time, but they are not welcomed and hidden hands intervene to silence their voices and quietly rubbish their ideas.

That was what was wrong with the College of Social Work. ‘The great and the good’ set it up for the rest of the profession. They did not want to allow its members to control it. They were interested in telling people what to do. They were not interested in hearing from people working at the front line what their experience is and what they think should be done.

It seems to me to be a bleak vision. Unless we move to more open and pluralistic approaches, driven by information and ideas from a wide variety of sources, developments in child protection will never result in real improvements. They will just reflect a slowly changing establishment consensus that lurches from one disaster to another because it is increasingly making itself immune to unpleasant external influences, such as the facts and the truth.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Requiring Improvement?

I cannot be alone in feeling a sense to deep unease about the latest statistics from Ofsted, covering the period from November 2013 - June 2015.

These show that their inspections rate NO councils in England as 'outstanding' for children's services and only a quarter as 'good'. More than half required improvement and depressingly a quarter were found to be inadequate.

Requires improvement

You can read the full report at:

A good summary is in Children and Young People Now.

Whatever way you look at it, something is very wrong here. Either there is widespread poor performance or there is an inspection regime that is inappropriately finding poor performance. Yet you can bet your bottom dollar that politicians will not say a great deal about these statistics and that Ofsted will not offer any consistent or plausible explanation of what the causes of poor performance are.

The more I think about it, the more I tend to the conclusion that the Ofsted inspection regime is one that finds fault but does not point to how to improve. That's just the kind of inspection regime we don't want.

Faith, hope and charities

In the wake of the Kids Company collapse comes the collapse of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). The two events appear to be unrelated but put together they raise serious concerns about the ability of charities which receive a large proportion of their funds from government to provide continuity of service.

The services children receive need above all to be consistent and reliable. As two clinicians, quoted in the Guardian, argue children and young people could be left bereft when the help they need is suddenly curtailed.

A common theme, perhaps, is that both organisation seem to have seen their reserves depleted over recent years, making their ability to respond to the unexpected more difficult. 

Children need more than just the hope that crucial services will be provided consistently. They need to know that Government will not just stand by and allow them to be left high and dry. If charities are providing services with government funds, it is the responsibility of government to help them to do it reliably and resiliently without interruption.