Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Talking Sense in Scotland

 I was very pleased to see that Donald Henderson, the Scottish Government’s Deputy Director for Care and Protection, speaking at a recent event, is quoted as saying:

“How did the best systems learn? The best systems learn from the mistakes they make, the mistakes that were almost made, or ‘near misses’, and also from the successes. There needs to be an honesty about it.”

I only wish English civil servants and their political bosses would be as quick to acknowledge this very simple and straightforward truth. We learn from being honest about what can go wrong. And in order to allow people to speak freely about mistakes and service failures, we need to make it safe for them to do so.

In order to make child protection safer we need to develop a just reporting culture, in which practitioners are given permission and encouraged to talk about errors. We need to support and respect those who raise safety concerns and stop intimidating whistle blowers. We need to equip practitioners to talk about workplace errors and to analyse and understand how mistakes happen by providing Human Factors training like the training that pilots and other airline employees currently receive. And we need to gain a broad and accurate picture of the types and frequencies of mistakes and service failings by developing better systems – such as Confidential Near Miss Reporting - to create better quality data about the kinds of errors that occur daily in child protection practice.

The Safer Safeguarding Group campaigns on these issues. Join us in our quest for more openness and honesty about mistakes.

Top down improvements - doomed to fail

Trying to justify the Government’s ill-starred Assessment and Accreditation scheme for children’s social workers in England, Lord Nash, a junior minister in the Department for Education, told the House of Lords that:

“Almost one in four councils inspected under Ofsted’s current inspection framework has a judgment which indicates that its practice is inadequate. In the light of that startling statistic, it is critical that the ​Secretary of State is able to bring forward improvement activity that she believes will help raise the standard of social work practice by making clear what standards are expected of children and family social workers and assessing social workers against those improvement standards.
“In other professions, we might expect a professional body to undertake that work but, for now at least, there is no such body for social workers. With the distinct regulatory functions that Social Work England will rightly have, we believe the Secretary of State is in the best position to drive this improvement forward. Indeed, she is the only person who can. In doing so, she will, of course, want to work exceptionally closely with the social work profession.”

One thing his lordship failed to mention is that it was the Government which pulled the funding from the College of Social Work, effectively curtailing the development of a professional body for social work in England.

Another thing, that he might like to reflect on, is his totally unjustified assumption that local authorities get poor Ofsted reports because their social workers lack knowledge and skills. Much more plausible explanations for low standards are under-funding of services, shortages of staff, burdensome management practices, poor IT systems and the stultifying impact of the prevalent culture of fear and blame.

And why a politician like the Secretary of State, who happens to be an accountant by profession and who probably knows very little about children’s social work, is the “only person” able to drive improvement forward is a complete mystery to me. Driving improvement forward is something we should all be doing, especially those of us who deliver services day after day. They are the only people who really know what happens at the front line. The idea that a small elite of government ministers and their advisers know what’s best is a naive fallacy, the pursuit of which will only result in failure and despair.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Knowledge

In recent months, my blog has been read more in the USA, Russia and France than it has been in Britain. I’m very pleased to have a thriving international audience, but having lots of non-British readers is challenging. In particular, it behoves me to explain some of the quaint and idiocyncratic, not to say bizarre, things we get up to in the place some people still like to call the United Kingdom.

That brings me to The Knowledge.

If you want to drive a black taxi cab in London you have to take a test. It’s called The Knowledge. The Knowledge is one of the most difficult tests in the world. You have to study for years to memorise the city’s 25,000 streets and the shortest routes between them.

It may sound like a good idea to require every taxi driver in London to have intricate knowledge of the city’s labyrinthine streets. But a little black box that costs less than £100 and which you stick to the windscreen of your taxi makes The Knowledge just a little bit unnecessary. It’s called a Satnav or a GPS.

It’s all too easy for tests designed to ensure professional standards to become unnecessary or irrelevant. Sometimes the people who think up the tests have the best motives. They want a better service, more knowledgeable personnel, more satisfied ‘customers’. But the content of the test must be justified by being strictly related to the knowledge and skills which are required to achieve clearly defined tasks competently. The test mustn’t become just a hurdle that people have to jump in order to get into the profession. It mustn’t become just a way of keeping people out. And it mustn’t become a con trick to mislead members of the public that something is being done to improve professional standards when it isn’t.

That brings me to the government’s ill-fated Assessment and Accreditation scheme, which is currently being rolled-out for children’s social workers in England. As I’ve said before the Government provides no detail about where its so-called knowledge and skills statements, on which the accreditation scheme is based, come from and no justification for them. And it provides no proposals for how these knowledge and skills statements can be reviewed, improved and kept up to date in future. So, its tests are really pretty arbitrary. Rather than being a basis for improving the safety and quality of practice it is beginning to look rather like The Knowledge – a difficult test to pass but not really necessary.

Heather Wakefield, head of local government at Unison, has recently described the Assessment and Accreditation scheme as “ill-thought out” saying that “… it threatens to make things worse, not better. It doesn’t accurately assess the work staff do, and could prove the final straw for many experienced employees, who may well vote with their feet and leave. 

“Ministers,” she says, “should think again, and instead of making dedicated employees take this ill-conceived test, provide more resources to enable them to do their jobs properly.”

I say spot on, Heather! If ever a nail was hit on the head, then you have hit this nail smack on.

This ill-conceived test is going to do nothing except create a little industry about passing it. It’s a distraction, an irrelevance, a waste of time. And it is fundamentally misleading. It doesn’t make practice safer. It just makes people jump through hoops to stay where they were in the first place and consumes time and resources which could be much better used.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Ofsted – beyond the pale

The body which inspects children’s social care services in England, Ofsted, is primarily an inspector of schools. For reasons which have never been entirely clear to me, the responsibility for children’s social care inspection was passed to Ofsted more than ten years ago. I think Ofsted has never really got to grips with that responsibility. It continues to be more about judgement and blame and less about analysis and improvement than it should be. It isn’t helping ‘failing’ authorities improve and it seems at times to be basking in their ‘failures’. Too often Ofsted wags its judging finger and proclaims: “This is wrong, put it right”. Why things are wrong or how they can be put right is something that we don’t hear a lot about from Ofsted. Sadly, I think it doesn’t know.

There’s a lot wrong with Ofsted. It’s director of social care inspection, Eleanor Schooling, is a former teacher. She may know a lot about local government, but she has never had to stand on a doorstep on a cold winter’s night to explain that she’s calling about an allegation of child abuse. I think that creates a credibility problem.

Ofsted’s former head, the combative Sir Michael Wilshaw, is also a former teacher. He never gave me the impression that he understood much about children’s social care. His main message seemed to be that good schools were good because they had good head teachers. Ergo, children’s services departments would be good if only they had good directors. ‘Simplistic’ is the word that comes to mind.

Anyway, they have now replaced Sir Michael with somebody, Amanda Spielman, who is neither a teacher nor a social worker but an accountant! It was salutary to hear the House of Commons Education Committee comment that:

“Ms Spielman’s responses on child protection were particularly troubling and did not inspire confidence that she grasped the importance of Ofsted’s inspections in preventing children being held at risk through service failure.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement!

Now we learn that Ofsted is planning to focus its schools inspections by eavesdropping on ‘unsubstantiated gossip’ on Twitter and Facebook to help decide whether an inspection is required.

Now that is getting seriously silly. Whoever came up with this cunning wheeze should be directed towards some sort of training course in how to act sensibly! And we have to ask ourselves the $64,000 question: “Should an organisation which seems to have lost its grip of reality continue to have responsibility for inspecting safety critical children’s services, where service failings do not just result in setting the tongues of Internet trolls wagging, but can actually result in children dying when they shouldn’t.