Wednesday, 31 August 2016


Matt Bee, a social worker writing in the Guardian, persuasively argues that a great deal of paperwork associated with social work with adults is unnecessary.

So too in child protection. There are endless pressures to try to record everything in the hope that one or two small pieces of information may eventually complete the jigsaw of a risk assessment.

Unfortunately trying to protect children is not as simple as completing jigsaw puzzles. There are costs with collecting information as well as benefits. The more you try to garner, the more likely it is that the quality of information will degrade as a hard pressed worker struggles to complete an assessment against the clock. Then there is the problem of how to store, arrange and analyse the information. Too much detail can lead to a ‘data smog’ [1] in which there is chronic ‘information overload’ [2].

The aim has to be collecting the right amount of high quality information to inform the judgement about whether or not a child is safe. And that information has to be coherent and simple enough to communicate easily to others who need to know. Too much irrelevant data can be very distracting and can result in key people not grasping key facts.

Unfortunately, a long-established culture of blaming people who failed to acquire what, with hindsight, appears to be a crucial piece of information about a child has resulted in a widespread fear that everything must be accumulated and recorded. It is not easy to break that cycle. Social workers and their managers need to review continuously how well recording practices, and information storage systems, are serving the needs of children. And they need to be confident about discarding information that does not serve that purpose. Wherever possible, they need to be confident to prune, simplify and make more logical agency records so that less and less unnecessary information is recorded while crucial, safety critical information is made ever easier to access and understand.

Those who design agency recording systems also need to be clear that their responsibilities are to support professional practice by facilitating improved situation awareness and sound decision-making and by enhancing the quality of communication. Information systems should not be judged by how much data they collect; they should be judged by how well they enable effective practice.


[1] A term coined by David Shenk in his book of that name (Harper Collins, 1997)
[2] See Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock (Random House, 1970)

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

More analysis, less allegation

Allegations against a social worker involved in the case of Liam Fee (the murdered Fife toddler) are currently being put before the Scottish Social Services Council conduct sub-committee. It is said that she was "disorganised and chaotic".

I do not know any more about this case than appears in the news reports. However, I do feel a general sense of unease that there is so often so much emphasis on disciplinary measures, when what is required is a careful analysis of systems and how they have failed.

Rather than trying to prove that a person has been "disorganised and chaotic" it is much more constructive to ask how organisations can avoid placing people who are believed to be "disorganised and chaotic", or at risk of becoming so, in situations where real harm to a child can result.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Delays in Child Protection IT

I am sorry to learn that it has proved necessary to announce a "recovery plan" for the Child Protection Information Sharing project, a system which will allow healthcare staff in hospital accident and emergency units and similar settings to identify children who are subject to child protection plans or who are looked after by local authorities.

Unlike other attempts to introduce IT to child protection (such as the wholly dysfunctional Integrated Children’s System), the Child Protection Information Sharing project is a system which is simple and has straightforward, achievable and supportable objectives. In short it is sensible IT for child protection.
To hear that a low cost and potentially very useful system is running behind schedule is very disappointing. Those involved, especially the relevant civil servants and ministers, should pull-out all the stops to ensure that the system is delivered as quickly as possible.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Sharon Shoesmith on ‘wilful neglect’

Despair was first my reaction to reading the thoughts of Sharon Shoesmith (the ex-director of Haringey children’s services who was sacked in 2008 following the death of Baby Peter Connolly) on government proposals on introducing mandatory reporting or a duty to act.

Community Care reports Shoesmith as saying that the proposals, which might result in social workers and other professionals facing prison sentences when child protection cases go wrong, are an “opportunity” for the social work profession “… to communicate the challenges of the job and to mount a proper legal defence when social workers come under attack”. Apparently she believes that introducing new criminal offences could provide an opportunity for social workers to obtain a fair hearing.

As far as I can see that amounts to saying that a culture of blame and fear is best tackled by providing more opportunities to blame and instil fear. But perhaps Shoesmith’s puzzling remarks are an attempt at what psychologists call paradoxical intervention, a technique in which the patient (in this case the government) is encouraged to do the exact opposite of the desired outcome!

We can but hope.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Health visiting should be properly funded

I am sorry to see that the health visiting profession appears to be coming under renewed pressure. A survey of health visitors by Unite, published this month, found that:
  • Nearly 60 % reported big increases in individual workloads during the last year
  • 44 % reported a drop in morale, most attributing that to increased workplace stress
  • 70 % reported ‘frequent’ staff shortages in the last 12 months
  • More than 85% reported that they work more than their contracted hours
  • More than 60% said that their overtime was unpaid 

Despite a long and distinguished history of playing a central role in children’s health, welfare and development, health visiting services in England suffered unjustifiable reductions in the early years of the 21st Century which were reversed to some extent following 2010.

The service provides essential professional contact with pre-school children, facilitating advice and support for families and surveillance of child health.

Now, however, it seems that the service is not keeping pace with continued high demand. Unite’s Sarah Carpenter is reported as saying:

“Ministers need to wake-up to the fact that the progress made by the last government with the Health Visitor Implementation Plan, which boosted the workforce by more than 4,000, could be jeopardised with all the adverse impact this would have on families, children and the wider public health agenda.”

Health visiting should not be underfunded. Essential contact with some young families under stress will be lost if health visitors are over-stretched, putting children at greater risk. As the coalition government realised in 2010, a sensible, justifiable and effective universal service should not be a target for quick-fix savings. The present government needs to realise that before it is too late.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Spin and Hot Air from Ofsted

I struggled to find much rational, relevant or useful content in Ofsted’s consultation document on the future of social care inspection, which I have only just got around to reading.
It seems to be full of carefully crafted but essentially vacuous phrases which might be important if only somebody had taken the trouble to explain what they mean. The chief culprit is “focus on the things that matter most to children’s lives” which sounds commendably child centred on first hearing, but which unravels into virtual meaningless unless we have more information about how these ‘things’ are uncovered and validated.

Ofsted says its inspectors regularly talk to children about what matters to them, but they don’t say what methods they use to draw valid conclusions and, mysteriously, they don’t give any hint in the consultation paper about what these conclusions are. So ‘the things that matter most to children’ could be anything that Ofsted wants them to be – a very convenient catch-all that makes the inspectorate appear pro-child without having to accept that children may not agree with the way in which it goes about its business.

And two key words I would have expected to find in any document about inspecting child protection services – safety and quality – do not occur at all in the document. How anybody can write a 38-page document on inspecting children’s services without using both of those words frequently is a complete mystery to me.

Rather than focusing on how inspection could contribute to creating safer and higher quality services (a question which is intellectually challenging), the document takes an essentially superficial and bureaucratic approach that simply introduces new nomenclature (such as ‘modular inspections’) and reconfigured arrangements (such as inspecting ‘good’ authorities less and ‘inadequate’ ones more) which are frankly irrelevant to service improvement and to making children safer and happier. 

In short the whole document seems to be driven by a desire to tidy-up Ofsted’s organisation and processes at the expense of doing anything that might be truly effective. It’s all very sad.