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.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Bye, Bye Sir Michael, Bye, Bye!

I found it striking that Sir Michael Wilshaw’s farewell interview with the BBC, as he retires as head of Ofsted, should so singularly fail to make any mention of children’s social care services and child protection.


Under Sir Michael’s leadership of Ofsted, the social care section has remained a backwater in the inspectorate which is dominated by its responsibilities for inspecting schools.

An independent organisation dedicated to improvement in children’s services and child protection should be created and the education ethos, which is rampant at Ofsted, should be left far behind.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Need, not innovation, should be the focus

The list of local authorities which will receive money from the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme is a stark reminder that the Government is proposing to spend £11 million on experimenting with new ideas, many of which may prove fruitless, rather than spending the money where it will do the most good. You can read more about the allocation of this grant in Children and Young People Now.

At the same time, it is reported in Community Care that struggling Birmingham Council – the biggest local authority in Europe - is having to make sizeable cuts to its children’s services budget. That will not do anything to help it improve its services which have been repeatedly judged ‘inadequate’ by Oftsed.

The Government seems preoccupied with the innovation programme to the detriment of setting proper priorities to ensure that every child in need of protection receives a good or outstanding service. The Government should direct every penny to meeting children’s needs, not to pet projects.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Bottom Up

While I agree with the report of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, published this week, that the Department for Education (DfE) lacks a credible plan for improving the child protection system, I am not convinced by the report’s recommendations.


In particular I don’t think much of the Committee’s suggestion that the DfE work more closely with Ofsted to obtain “more timely assurance on the quality of children’s services”. That presumes that Ofsted itself has a coherent model of quality of children’s services (which it doesn’t). And it fails to address the problem, which to be fair the report recognises, that the Department is solely reliant on Ofsted inspections to measure the quality of local authority services. To my mind Ofsted is a part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The associated recommendation that the Department steps-up its use of “leading indicators” to intervene in local authorities, before they are deemed to have failed by Ofsted, is weak because it is not clear how reliable or informative the so-called leading indicators are or how well they predict the outcomes of Ofsted inspections; let alone the question of whether or how they relate to quality and safety.

Then there is the recommendation that the DfE should set out for the Committee its plans for evaluation, dissemination and embedding good practice. To my mind that seems to assume that the DfE, which has still to open its ‘what works’ centre, is a repository of what constitutes best practice. I may be accused of being an incurable pessimist but I expect that any statements the DfE concocts concerning good practice are likely to be either unrealistic counsels of perfection or empty sound bites and probably a mixture of both. So I’m not recommending anybody to watch that space.

Finally, I was disappointed to see that the Committee fell into the trap of supposing that the primary response to workforce shortfalls should be more recruitment, when the real issue to be addressed is how to retain the people we already have. Unless the job of children’s social worker is made more attractive, people will move on, creating unfilled vacancies. It’s as simple as that.

My despair with all of this is that the model of improvement which the Public Accounts Committee seems to share with the DfE is essentially a top-down one. According to that view of the world, clever elite people, such as DfE civil servants and advisers and Ofsted inspectors, come up with prescriptions for best practice and improvement which are then dispensed to humble front-line practitioners, who are in turn expected to be appropriately compliant in seamlessly implementing the dictates of their betters.

It will never work as anybody giving the issue of improvement much thought knows. If the people who do the work and the people who are on the receiving end of services are not at the leading edge of improvement, changes will simply fall flat. If change is to bring about higher quality and safer services it needs to be bottom-up.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Health and Care Professions Council – have we lost our senses?

A recent decision of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) is reported in Community Care.

To cut a long story short a child protection social work team manager was said to have been operating with a vacancy rate of nearly 50% (3.5/7.5). In addition to her management duties, she is said to have had 40 unallocated cases assigned to her and was working long hours including evenings and weekends. Not surprisingly, she was overwhelmed by her workload.

The case against the manager appears to be that she tried to cope with the situation and did not complain with sufficient vigour to her superiors about her problems. As a result, so it is argued, some children received an unsafe service. The panel found that the manager chose to ask for more resources for her team rather than highlighting any specific cases that were of particular concern. After a full hearing the manager was given a three-year caution by the HCPC. That will allow her to continue to practice, but will be a stain on her record. She is now working in a non-management role.

It is hard to read this account and not be left breathless by what appears to be the sheer chutzpah of those who brought the case. It has all the hallmarks of a blame-the-victim culture, in which people are left unsupported to struggle in impossible situations for which they are then held accountable.

How long will it take before the powers-that-be realise that blaming people is a very poor way to achieve greater safety or high quality? I challenge anybody to explain how bringing this case has helped anyone. Safer services are brought about by people feeling able to talk openly about the difficulties they have in coping with challenging situations. They are brought about by supervisors who are quick to spot situations in which people need help and support. They are brought about by valuing hard working employees, not scapegoating them.

They are not brought about by unjustifiable and punitive disciplinary procedures, which are in danger of making professional regulation a laughing stock. The HCPC should concern itself with cases of egregious behaviour and never exercise sanctions against people who are just doing their best in difficult circumstances.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Innovation Clause: bad news, rumours of its death are an exaggeration!

I spoke to soon. It looks like the Lazarus-like clause has come back from the dead.

Community Care reports that the government is proposing to table amendments this week to re-instate the proposals in the Children and Social Work Bill, albeit in what ministers are reported to describe as an “altered and improved” form.

Mention of Lazarus notwithstanding, I don’t really know much about Biblical miracles. But I do know we need a modern day miracle to save us from an unholy preoccupation with this issue of so-called ‘innovation’.


We should all be getting on with making children’s services safer – not throwing them open to inexperienced newcomers and pedlars of unproven new ideas; not to mention the possibility of walking into the clutches of get-rich-quick out-sourcing merchants.