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.