Thursday, 26 January 2017

There is a better way

It saddens me to read about what is happening at Kirklees Council Children’s Services, following an Ofsted finding of ‘inadequate’. After the inspection, the director has resigned and the Unison branch secretary is quoted by Children and Young People Now as saying that others are resigning too. He speaks of staff members leaving in “droves”.

A decision to strike has been backed by 80% of union members who voted and the branch’s website lists the following causes of concern:
  • Poor staffing levels
  • Lack of permanent staff/use of agency staff/inability to recruit and retain staff
  • Lack of a travel plan
  • Poor IT systems
  • Inadequate workplace
  • Caseloads
  • Victimisation/bullying
  • Inconsistent management
  • Regrading
It’s the same sad, old story: failure, anger, conflict, fear, recrimination and blame. A damning Ofsted inspection ruins some people’s careers and puts others to flight in search of pastures new. Those that remain get to shoulder all the problems and cope with the increased workloads, while inspectors and civil servants and politicians and the media point the finger of blame. Management clamps down on the workers and workers resort to industrial action to try to protect themselves. It’s a tragedy because everybody suffers, most of all the children and young people who should be receiving what should be a high-quality service.

Inspection is a very crude and wasteful approach to quality. By the time an Ofsted inspection has amassed evidence of ‘inadequacy’ it is already too late for many children and young people who have been failed by the services they receive. And when the organisation implodes following the inspectors’ verdict, heads have to roll and in the ensuing chaos bad services get worse. In some cases, such as Birmingham, the turmoil continues for years, even decades.

W. Edwards Deming, the man who is often credited as the architect of the Japanese approach to quality, wrote in his book Out of the Crisis:

“Inspection does not improve quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product. As Harold F. Dodge said, ‘You cannot inspect quality into a product.’” (page 29)

Deming believed that quality had to be designed into goods and services. It is, he believed, useless and dispiriting to allow groups of workers to struggle to produce high quality, only to be told at the last minute that they have failed and need to start again. On the contrary management’s responsibility is to ensure that workers have the designs, systems and tools to build quality products and services. Crucial to this is giving workers the ability to identify quality problems and to take steps to correct them. Only by constantly learning from the experience of production can true quality come about.

Child protection services in Britain, and elsewhere, seem to be a long way from this ideal. Top-down bureaucracies characterised by blame and fear are still to be found. Rather than empowering workers to do a good job, organisations often rob workers of their autonomy and the ownership of what they produce.

And the spectre of Ofsted haunts practice like the sword of Damocles. 

There is a better way. The first step in implementing it is to stop doing the things which prevent high quality. Most importantly we have to tackle the culture of fear and blame and put a culture of learning and growth in its place.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

What Works?

In 2016 the government promised that funding of up to £20 million would be available in England within the year for a new ‘What Works Centre’, with the stated aim of “…making sure social workers across the country are able to learn from the very best examples of frontline social work with children and families”. To date the new centre has not been launched and there seems to be very little public information about what progress has been made.  
Andy Elvin, the chief executive of the Adolescent and Children's Trust, seems to know something about what is going on. He writes this month in the Guardian that 2017 will see the launch of the What Works Centre which he says will roll out successful work from one local authority to others and establish common models of service across child protection and children’s social work. He concludes: “It is neither acceptable nor sustainable for us to continue to have such variations in systems and approaches; we must settle on a small number of evidence-based systems and make sure they are rolled out across the UK.”

I am not entirely opposed to a ‘what works centre’. Indeed, it may be quite a good idea. But I begin to get a little worried when I hear the strong normative tone of Elvin’s conclusion which seems wedded to a prescriptive top-down approach in which, I imagine, it is proposed that some group of clever people will sift the available evidence and then select that ‘small number’ of ‘evidence-based’ systems which are to be imposed nationally.

The result of that kind of elitism is most likely to be that ‘what works on paper’ rapidly becomes ‘what doesn’t work in practice’.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Clearer about costs

Back in February 2016, I expressed some puzzlement about statements emerging from the Department for Education to the effect that there was no relationship between quality and cost in children’s services. Children’s Minister Edward Timpson was reported in Community Care as telling MPs that there is no “correlation between spend and quality” in children’s social care.

My gut feeling that there was something amiss in these claims has now been confirmed by academic research from the University of Coventry, which shows that Timpson’s conclusions are at best simplistic. The researchers demonstrate that when deprivation is taken into account, high deprivation local authorities which achieved a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted spent more money than those judged ‘inadequate’. However, the level of spending did not make a difference to the outcomes of Ofsted inspections in the low deprivation areas.

Importantly the University of Coventry research also reveals a relationship between social deprivation and the outcomes of Ofsted inspections. The researchers found that just over 40% of low deprivation authorities received a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ judgement, compared to only 30% of mid-deprivation authorities and only 11% of high deprivation authorities. They found that only 21% low deprivation local authorities were judged ‘inadequate’, compared to 29% of high deprivation authorities.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that spending does matter – and it matters most in the areas where the need is highest.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Hidden Agenda?

In this blog, I don’t generally indulge in conspiracy theory. But it is difficult to see how the UK Government’s tenacious (some may say “irrational”) attachment to the controversial exemption clauses, just re-inserted into the Children and Social Work Bill, could be anything other than a hidden agenda.

The Government’s claim is that the clauses, which would allow ministers to exempt councils in England from some statutory duties for up to six years, are necessary to allow children’s services departments to dismantle bureaucracy and to experiment with new ways of working.

Anybody who thinks about it for just a moment can see that councils don’t need to be exempted from statute to get rid of red tape, most of which stems from custom and practice, not legislation.

Nor does the law need to be rolled back to permit experimentation and innovation. There are literally hundreds, nay thousands, of possible improvements to practice that could take place without a change in any legislation. Indeed, the Children’s Chief Social Worker herself, a fervent advocate of the exemption clauses, was recently reported as widely praising improvements which are said to have taken place in Hertfordshire, which she lauded as “incredible outcomes” and which she predicted might have a “profound” national impact. The county was, she averred, a “national treasure”.
Well, I don’t know what is going on in Hertfordshire (and I think I will await the formal evaluation before commenting) but if the Chief Social Worker thinks that it is so wonderful, then why on earth does she think it is necessary to start tampering with laws which most sensible people see as being necessary to ensure children’s rights? If they have managed to achieve the incredible in Hertfordshire without exemptions, then why not just commend that model to all and forget the dreaded clauses? 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year!

It’s that time of year – the first day to be precise – when the blogosphere is filled with predictions and hopes for the coming year. In the past I have occasionally been tempted at New Year to join the crowd and draw up an elaborate wish list for child protection in Britain and elsewhere.

Not this year. More than ever, after a surprising and disturbing 2016, I am coming to the view that the “future’s not ours to see”, as Doris Day once said

So, this new year I am going to restrict myself to a single hope, a single wish, a single appeal, a single entreaty.

This is it. 

Let all those who have influence on child protection policy and practice get smart in 2017. Let them see that the blame and shame culture does not result in improvement, but has the opposite effect. Let them see that improvement comes about primarily as a result of those who do the work being empowered to learn from their mistakes and service failures; and being empowered to initiate changes (often small and modest ones) to make practice safer and to improve service quality.