Saturday, 22 July 2017

Confidential Hearings

I have always believed that legal proceedings concerning children should be held in camera

I don’t think it is right for the press to be able to stir up public feelings to try to influence the way in which a court decides about a child. To have the likes of Katie Hopkins and Christopher Booker pontificating on children’s cases before the courts churns my stomach.

My instincts are very much confirmed by what I read in the Guardian about the case of Charlie Gard. Apparently, staff at Great Ormond Street hospital are now receiving death threats.

That is no way to conduct very serious legal proceedings about the life of a child. All hearings about children should be held behind closed doors for a very obvious purpose; to protect the best interests of the child.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Learning from failure

The final part of Matthew Syed’s series was aired on BBC Radio 4 this lunchtime. In it Matthew developed the theme he also addressed in the two preceding programmes, the importance of learning from mistakes and failures.

Of particular interest this week was his examination of public policy and public services, dwelling for some time on the case of Baby Peter Connelly and the way in which the government of the day, pressured by the tabloid media and poorly informed public opinion, pursued and blamed individuals, rather than trying to find out what went wrong and learning how to avoid a repeat in future.

Matthew described a public sector in Britain which is generally afflicted by an unhealthy fear of failure and unwillingness to learn from mistakes with a knee-jerk tendency towards defensiveness and self-justification. The big egos of policy-makers and senior officials often get in the way of learning and improvement. Fear and blame are widespread.

On the positive side, Matthew did identify one or two examples where the development of policy and practice in the public sector is moving in the direction of being more rational and evidence led. He singled out David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team and Gavin Jones of Essex County Council to make the programme's concluding comments. Both clearly understood the importance of learning from failure and recognised its huge potential to revolutionise public services by making them truly effective.

The programme is really worth 30 minutes of your time. A must listen. 

Working conditions of children’s social workers in Britain

An independent report by Dr Jermaine Ravalier looks at the working conditions and wellbeing of social workers in the UK, of whom a large number work with children and young people.

Dr Ravalier is senior lecturer in psychology at Bath Spa University and co-leads the Psychological Research Group, specialising in researching working conditions and their effects.

The research found that:
  • Working conditions for social workers in Britain, irrespective of job role, are extremely poor, with deep budget cuts forcing social workers to take on more cases than ever
  • Heavy demands on individuals’ time result in increased levels of stress, intentions to leave, low job satisfaction and ‘presenteeism’ (working while sick resulting in lost productivity)
  • More than 90% of social workers are working an average of 10 hours of unpaid overtime every week
  • Over 50% of social workers are considering leaving the profession within the next 18 months due to the stress resulting from too many demands on their time

This research confirms much of what we knew already, but it is no less welcome for that. It turns the spotlight on the sad fact that children’s social workers are working in taxing and unfavourable conditions which result in high levels of turnover and vacancy.

People who undertake safety critical roles, such as social workers involved in child protection, need to have supportive working environments and reasonably sized workloads, so that they can concentrate fully on ensuring that those for whom they have responsibility are safe. If people are struggling with too much work or poor working conditions, it is not surprising that more mistakes are made or that quality is low.

Ask yourself the following question: would you fly with an airline that overworked its pilots, did nothing to reduce their high stress levels and allowed them to work while they were unfit through sickness? Why should abused and neglected children and young people be asked to accept anything less than the rest of us expect when our safety is in the hands of others?

Friday, 14 July 2017

You wouldn’t believe it …

The BBC reports that the Home Office has just been fined nearly £370,000 for breaching the government's senior salary pay cap by agreeing to pay the current chair of the child sex abuse inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, £185,000 a year. The previous chair of the inquiry, New Zealander Dame Lowell Goddard, was paid more than £350,000 in 2015-16, plus about another £100,000 in expenses.

I know that a lot of people believe that the child sex abuse inquiry is very important because it is hoped that it will expose widespread unacceptable practices. But at a time when services to abused and neglected children and young people face an unprecedented squeeze between increased demand, on the one hand, and shrinking funding on the other, I feel that paying eye watering sums of money to get inquiries chaired sends out all the wrong messages.

If important people like Professor Jay and Dame Lowell qualify to have the cap on their salaries disregarded, it is difficult to see why those working at the front line should have to struggle on with capped, and therefore shrinking, salaries.

The perils of surveys

My attention has just been drawn to an annual survey by the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner.  Part 2 asks about the issues with which Kent Police deals and which are most important to residents of that county. Respondents are asked to select a maximum of eight priorities from a long list. There is no 'Other' category. Here is a screen shot of the list.

It is shocking to see that Safeguarding and Protecting Children and Young People does not appear on the list. The nearest category is 'Child Sexual Exploitation' - which is just one part of child abuse and neglect. Because there is no ‘other’ category the results of the survey are bound to show that Safeguarding and Protecting Children and Young People is not a priority for the people of Kent. I think that is a disgrace.

Does this, I wonder, reflect Kent Police's priorities? Are children and young people such low priorities that they don't even feature for inclusion on a list of possible priorities? Clearly nobody in the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office thought to include them.


I was pleased to read in Community Care that a local authority which had been experiencing acute problems in retaining children’s social workers has pursued a successful strategy to improve workforce stability.
In a re-inspection of West Berkshire Council, Ofsted found that the vacancy rate for children’s social workers had reduced to 10%. The inspection report concludes that children receiving services from the authority are now benefiting from what it describes as “stable, warm and helpful relationships with their social workers and foster carers”.

Key to achieving these improvements appears to have been the adoption by the Council in 2014 of a Social Care Recruitment and Retention Strategy.

This provides for a retention bonus, up to three months’ retention leave after three years’ service, employment of a recruitment and retention specialist, relocation allowances, employing additional family support workers to support children’s social workers and more help in owning and running a car for work purposes.

This focus on what Herzberg calls ‘hygiene factors’ builds on the views of a group of West Berkshire Social Workers who told managers in 2014 that 'Nobody does this job for the money, but a competitive salary/package would help recruitment and retention'.

But, to its credit, the strategy also recognises the crucial importance of Herzberg’s motivators in recruiting and retaining staff. It introduces better support and supervision, a social work academy to support newly qualified staff and stresses the importance of a good working environment, concluding that:
“Child Protection can be a frightening and dangerous role. Social Workers face threats and intimidation on a regular basis. Consequently it is essential staff return to safe and secure team environments where they can discuss complex case issues and debrief with colleagues following home visits.” (paragraph 5.2.1)
There may be some who think that this type of ‘retention package’ is expensive. Clearly many of the benefits involved do not come free of charge, but the costs have to be weighed against the costs of not retaining children’s social workers. These include the costs of having to cover vacancies using agency staff, the costs of trying to recruit to vacant posts (advertising, interviewing etc.) and the costs of long-term sickness which is often a consequence of overwork and stress. Perhaps most importantly are the costs of poor quality, such as children coming into care because they cannot be adequately supported in the community or the costs of re-work when a case needs to be revisited because of mistakes and quality shortfalls resulting from frequent staff changes or absences.

Not to mention the costs of having negative Ofsted inspections, with all the expense and disruption that a finding of ‘inadequate’ brings.

I do not know the details of how these costs are actually working out in West Berkshire, but I suspect that the long-term cost of doing things right will be less than the long-term costs of doing things badly. And I hope that the authority will go from strength to strength in continuing to implement its strategy in future.

I don’t know where the pervasive idea came from that the best way to get value-for-money from children’s social workers was to treat them badly, but it has certainly been a feature of the UK scene for many years. A command and control ethos saw the introduction of more and ever tighter procedures, making it increasingly hard to do a good job. There were timescales and targets and formal assessment instruments which, with the benefit of hindsight, almost seem to have been designed to impede good practice. [1]

Then there were IT systems which were hard to use, frustrating and demanding of time. Initiatives such as more efficient use of office space, culminating in some areas in ‘hot-desking’, and the effects of the public sector pay cap, which has meant in many cases falling salaries, added further to an unhealthy recipe for dissatisfied and demotivated employees.

But all of these de-motivaters pale into insignificance when compared to the impact of the surrounding culture of blame and fear. That is why West Berkshire's commitment to creating "... safe and secure team environments where (social workers) can discuss complex case issues and debrief..." is so important.

There are still many places where management practices of blame, command, control and bureaucracy are still the norm. Thank goodness that there are some places like West Berkshire that appear to be successfully reversing these unhelpful trends.


[1] K. Broadhurst  D. Wastell  S. White  C. Hall  S. Peckover  K. Thompson  A. Pithouse  D. Davey  “Performing ‘Initial Assessment’: Identifying the Latent Conditions for Error at the Front-Door of Local Authority Children's Services” Br J Soc Work (2010) 40 (2): 352-370.

Sunday, 9 July 2017


The new Children’s Minister, Robert Goodwill, seemed to have started off not too badly last week by making what seemed to be quite a sensible decision to scale back substantially the Government’s ill-starred plans for the accreditation of children’s social workers.

Of course, he could have made an even more sensible decision – to abolish the scheme altogether. As far as I am concerned there are no reasons at all for saving an initiative which has so little to commend it that one wonders whoever thought it up.

Sadly, Mr Goodwill went on the very next day to blot his copybook and prove himself not to be a very effective ‘new broom’. Having been reported on 6th July as saying that the analysis of the recent consultation had led his department to change fundamentally its plans for accreditation, he was then reported on 7th July as saying that he had spoken to a lot of social workers in the last four weeks and that he had formed the impression that they were “up for it”. The accreditation scheme, he said, was all about recognising the professionalism of social workers and he now presented the proposed scaling-back as just an adjustment to the implementation timetable.

Maybe he was got at overnight by some person or persons who remain intent on pushing ahead with the scheme in all its awfulness no matter what anybody says. Maybe he is just finding his new brief confusing. In the meantime, children’s social work is threatened by yet another poorly thought out policy. It’s all very, very sad.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Doffing the cap

On Saturday, 18 March 2017 I wrote a post entitled “Pay - how to dissatisfy child protection workers”. In it I said:
You can’t go on paying children’s social workers and other public sector workers involved in child protection less and less and expect it to have no impact. You can have all the recruitment campaigns you want, but you will not retain staff if you keep cutting their pay in real terms.
In the last week, there has been heated discussion in Britain about the cap on public sector pay, and a slowly dawning recognition in some quarters, if not in others, that you can’t keep paying people less and less in real terms without serious negative consequences.

The Guardian speaks of a damning government report that shows the depth of public sector pay cuts.

However, the BBC reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, is insisting that the Government must hold its nerve over public pay and not give in to demands to raise the cap. Other ministers are reported as holding different views.

There is a lot of talk of the pay of police officers, fire fighters, teachers and nurses. I haven’t heard anybody yet mention children’s social workers but they are public employees too and they are also hit by the pay cap.

In old fashioned English, they used to speak of doffing your cap which means in modern parlance raising your hat to acknowledge or or to show deference to another.
I’m of the view that the time has come for quite a lot of doffing, in acknowledgement of the difficult work that child protection professionals and other public sector workers undertake. 

Put simply, the Government needs to pay people a fair rate for the job.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Life, death and learning

Everybody who works in, or who has responsibility for, child protection should listen to Matthew Syed’s three-part series on BBC Radio 4, ‘Learning from life and death’.

He promises to explore how and why individuals and organisations learn from their mistakes or, alternatively, how they fail to do so. The programmes, we are told, will identify common obstacles to learning from experience and ways in which they can be overcome.

Not surprisingly the aviation industry is cited by Matthew as a repository of good practice. Learning, he argues, is at the heart of aviation’s safety culture. The emphasis is on learning lessons, not apportioning blame. Avoiding unnecessary blame and treating people fairly when they make mistakes results in a high level of reporting, which provides aviation professionals with a wealth of data which can be analysed. As a result, the causes of errors can be understood and systematic improvements made.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear me endorsing these arguments. For years now I (and others, such as members of the Safer Safeguarding Group) have been banging our heads against glass walls and ceilings (and even floors) trying to get policy makers to recognise that child protection will only become safer if it adopts an approach which is similar to that adopted by the airlines. Routine errors and mistakes should be seen, not as excuses to blame and censure, but as opportunities for learning and understanding. There is a overbearing need for transparency; for a just culture that thrives on openness.

Five routes to safer organisations emerge from the first of the three programmes:
  • Understand that error does not equal disaster, it equals opportunity
  • Put learning at the centre of the organisation’s culture
  • Learn lessons, not apportion blame
  • Treat people fairly
  • Achieve a high level of reporting of mistakes and service failings

I believe each of these should be put into effect in child protection. Unless we begin to adopt approaches the wisdom of which is now widely acknowledged, we will be open to accusations of negligence, of letting children and young people down by not doing all we can to keep them safe.

The names of three people mentioned in the programme will stay with me. The first is that of the philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, who believed that the route to better science and a more open society lies in trying to falsify hypotheses, not confirm them. What counts is not having a theory that fits with all the facts but rather having a theory which is capable of being tested.

The second name is that of the statistician George Box.

Box is credited with arguing that all models are wrong but some are useful. He wrote: "The most that can be expected from any model is that it can supply a useful approximation to reality: All models are wrong; some models are useful".
Like Popper's, this philosophy is a form of fallibilism, the view that people cannot attain absolute certainty concerning questions of fact.  We should always be ready to be proved wrong and when we are we should learn from our mistakes.

The third name is that of the comedian John CleeseSpeaking about how he tries to learn to be funnier, he told Matthew Syed that it was vital to create a gap between yourself and your ego. He always tried to stand back and view things objectively, not emotionally. The key barriers to learning were blame and ego.

There is a great deal to think about in this series and a great deal that is very relevant to building safer child protection services. I am looking forward greatly to next week’s episode.