Saturday, 18 February 2017

Puzzling stats and scary stats

The Department for Education’s “experimental” statistics, Children and family social work workforce in England, yearending 30 September 2016 (SFR 08/2017, 16 February 2017) raised more questions than they answered.

What should have been an invaluable nugget of information about caseloads proved to be nothing more than “fool’s gold”. I read and re-read the paragraphs at the bottom of page 5 and the top of page 6, got out my calculator and did some calculations, but still couldn’t work out where the average caseload figure of 16.1 came from.

And the huge discrepancies between the caseloads calculated for different local authorities didn’t do a lot for my faith in these figures. Even the document’s author sounded somewhat perplexed, commenting: “This is only an indicative caseload as the variable(s) used to calculate this will not capture all case holding social workers. Therefore, care should be taken when viewing these figures” (page 6). Well, I hope that’s clear enough for you!!

I quickly moved on to vacancies. There was an increase of 1.3% in the number of fulltime equivalent (FTE) vacancies from 5,470 in September 2015 to 5,540 in September 2016. That resulted in an FTE vacancy rate at 30 September 2016 of 16.7%, or put another way about 1 in every 6 posts vacant.

Whatever way you look at that statistic it is NOT good news, especially in some parts of the country such as Inner London, where the rate was 23.2% (FTE) and Outer London where the rate was a whopping 25.8% (FTE).

Vacancy rates like those speak to me of something approximating a crisis – especially since the situation is getting no better (and possibly worse) as time goes by. And the Government seems to be meddling to make matters even worse by its hastily conceived accreditation scheme for children’s social workers which will mean that they will have to pass another examination at the same time as struggling to provide a service. If I were contemplating moving on to a new career that would certainly focus my thinking!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Exemption - is the writing on the wall?

It is good to see that Eileen Munro has now come out against the government’s proposals to promote innovation in children’s services by giving ministers powers to exempt councils from some statutory duties.

Outside the inner circles of government there seems to be ever-decreasing support for what has all the hallmarks of a really bad idea. Widespread hostility towards the proposals, and withering criticism from key figures, however, is no guarantee that they will die the death they deserve. All too frequently poor policy ideas seem to persist in the face of rational criticism and are often only overturned by catastrophic events.

Short of a ministerial reshuffle or the government losing a general election there seems to me to be every possibility that inertia and face saving will prevail over common sense.

I hope I’m wrong.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Child on child sex offending – the dangers of a moral panic

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from police forces in England by Barnardo’s show some large percentage rises in allegations of child sexual abuse committed by children.

The BBC’s headline proclaims: “Child on child sex offences 'may be next scandal'”. The Daily Mail trumpets - “Claims of child sex offences committed by other children almost doubles in just four years with more than 9,000 reported in 2016”.

There is no area of public policy where a moral panic is less acceptable.

Logic and verifiable evidence are required here, not myths, half-truths, ‘alt-facts’ and knee-jerk conclusions. The risks of getting this issue wrong are two-fold: some children who need to be protected will not be and, alternatively, some children will be wrongly criminalised. Neither is an acceptable outcome.

In my view, the Barnardo’s figures need to be treated with caution, while not being dismissed. The huge differences in the percentage rise between different police forces is an important signal that the figures may be more about how alleged abuse is reported and recorded than about what is actually happening to children and young people. While some police forces are reporting percentage rises of more than 300% over the period 2013-16 (Warwickshire, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Surrey) the national rate of increase is reported as being only 78%, suggesting that many forces may have quite low rates of increase.

Whatever happens nobody should jump to any quick conclusions on the basis of these figures alone. There needs to be further investigation before any policy or practice changes are proposed. There are some children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour, but the very last thing we need, to adapt Stanley Cohen’s own words, is a situation in which some innocent children emerge “to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Demanding, fault-finding, hard-to-please, censorious – call it what you will Ofsted needs to re-think its approach to inspecting children’s services

It’s just one criticism in a much longer letter, which, to be fair, does cite strengths as well as weaknesses. But I was more than irritated to read the following paragraph penned by an Ofsted inspector:

“Children are seen regularly and are seen alone by social workers who know them well. The views of children and young people are identified and reflected well in assessments and care planning arrangements. However, social workers are routinely seeing children during school hours. Whilst this is with the permission of the school staff, children are thus missing lessons which has the potential to adversely affect their educational outcomes.” 

Would the inspector, I wonder, have made the same comment about children seeing their family doctors, or having hospital appointments, during school hours? I suspect not. Nor does the inspector appear to reflect on the fact that Children’s Services in Great Britain are funded largely on the assumption that the staff should work office hours, not evenings and weekends. Not to mention the fact that school is often the only safe place for a child to talk about their home experiences without fear of being overheard by family members.

The inspector’s comments have the ring of barrel-scraping; dredging-up just one more thing to taunt an authority already struggling to overcome a judgement of ‘inadequate’.  And they display a self-righteous disregard for the realities of service provision in the age of austerity. Cash-strapped councils might welcome suggestions from Ofsted about how to work more effectively, but to be told to find resources which simply don’t exist is like receiving a slap-in-the-face.

Ofsted has never struck the right note with its heavy-handed and unthinking this-is-wrong-put-it-right approach to inspecting children’s services. Challenging hard-pressed services to do the impossible is not a good recipe for improvement. Rather it is a formula for destroying morale and frustrating positive action.

The Wisdom of Solomon

People who blithely criticise the work of the Family Courts, both in Britain and elsewhere, such as Christopher Booker, should carefully read the case reported in yesterday’s Guardian and elsewhere concerning a transgender woman who has been denied contact with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish children.

Faced with a veritable moral maze, Mr Justice Peter Jackson, the judge in this case, has had to struggle with daunting issues. As he says, he has reached his decision with regret. The case clearly illustrates how thoughtfully and carefully family courts react when faced with cases of imponderable complexity.

The glib criticisms and fallacious arguments which flow from the pens of the Bookers of this world are utterly belied by this case and many others like it.

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’.