What’s different this time? In the wake of the Baby P case, it’s a question that will be asked of the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit. Roger Singleton, who will oversee the body, offers some answers to Sally Gillen
Whenever the government wants to show its commitment to addressing an issue that has the public up in arms, it moves swiftly to set up a unit. Social exclusion, antisocial behaviour and teenage pregnancy, to name a few, have all had units set up in their honour. So it was inevitable that the public outcry over the death of Baby P, followed by the usual flurry of political activity, would, once the dust had begun to settle on Lord Laming’s report, result in the establishment of a unit.
And so, next month, the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit will begin work. Its remit, as described last month in the government’s response to Laming’s progress report on the protection of children in England, is to oversee the implementation of Laming’s recommendations, to provide a “bridge between national policy and local implementation”, and to “support and challenge local authorities” (see “How unit will deliver”, right).
Singleton oversees work
Barnardo’s former chief executive Roger Singleton, who was appointed the first chief adviser on the safety of children in April, will spend two days a week overseeing the unit’s work, although someone else will be appointed later in the year to run it day to day.
In a career working with children that spans more than 40 years, and which was recognised with a knighthood in 2005, Singleton has witnessed the predictable aftermath of dozens of child deaths. “There has been a depressingly familiar pattern about the reaction to child deaths,” Singleton says. “A child is killed by their parents or carers, there is public outrage, there is a major inquiry followed by a significant overhaul of the system and legislative and organisational restructuring. Then, when that’s done, we enter a period of quiet.
“Anybody, including members of the tabloid media, is entitled to ask ‘well, what is different this time?’.”
Singleton hopes the unit will make Laming’s recommendations “a reality, not just something for the birds”, expressing his gratitude that there will be no radical organisational or legislative change this time round.
Fear of bureaucracy
In this respect, he shares the views of many professionals working with children, who have grappled with numerous changes since the publication in 2003 of the report into the death of Victoria Climbié. Nonetheless, there is understandable nervousness that the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit may increase bureaucracy and the micro-management of councils, and that it may represent another raft of bureaucracy in the system, resulting in yet more demands from central government for information.
Singleton refutes this, insisting that the unit does not represent another tier of bureaucracy. Although it is described as having the ability to “intervene where necessary,” it will have no extra powers to do so.
Yet with its monitoring role, and responsibility for measuring “high standards and continuous improvement”, the unit’s scope sounds confusingly similar to that of Ofsted, with the potential to duplicate functions and bureaucratic demands on children’s departments.
But there is an important distinction between the unit and the inspectorate. “Ofsted’s role is to see whether the standards have been met,” Singleton says. “It does not have a development function so it cannot say what the implications of policy are.
“It will be the unit’s job to see whether there are areas that are not working, to say if this needs fixing, and how it is best fixed. Is it by legislation? Greater guidance? And so on.”
Singleton adds that staff from the unit will not be going into councils or be intervening in their processes, but will rely on information gathered by Ofsted to develop policy and identify more quickly which local authorities are systemically failing and where things are not working. Ofsted has just published a new framework for a rolling programme of inspections of safeguarding and looked-after children in all areas and covering all partners on a three-year cycle. It will also be conducting a new annual inspection of child protection in local authority children’s services.
Nevertheless, with a duty to “negotiate with local authorities on targets in the children and young people’s plan” it seems inevitable that the unit will have at least a say in child protection arrangements locally and may require them to provide some level of information.
More detail on its role is likely to emerge when the unit publishes a full programme of work in September. Early priorities will be a revision of chapter eight of the Working Together guidance, which focuses on serious case reviews. Ofsted called for urgent reform of the system in December 2008 after evaluating 92 serious case reviews and finding a third to be inadequate. Its report, Learning Lessons: Taking Action, found that serious case reviews needed to be more independent, be carried out promptly, and focus more on the children involved rather than the agencies.
The development of new statutory performance indicators on safeguarding will also be among the unit’s initial tasks. Singleton predicts this will lead to a lot of “inward groaning” among professionals, and wariness among directors of children’s services. “The challenge is to try to make sure they really measure quality rather than how many times the phone rings before it’s answered,” says Singleton. “Quality is difficult to measure in child protection, and yet it is so, so important.”
Frontline practitioners’ views on how these indicators should look will be taken into account, he says. The unit has promised to draw on the experiences of a “family” of frontline workers, and Singleton has already shown a willingness to promote the value of child protection social workers by promising to press for better pay for them.
Support and supervision
He also shows an understanding of the importance of ensuring frontline managers have time to provide enough support and supervision. “There is some evidence to suggest frontline social workers appreciate easy access to their first-line managers to draw on their experience and knowledge,” he says. Those on the frontline will doubtless hope that this means the unit will not add to the paperwork pressures and meetings that often prevent managers from being available.
Sceptics may wonder how to interpret the decision to establish the unit for just three years initially, based on Laming’s recommendation that it need not have a permanent presence. Could its time-limited existence suggest the government believes the significant problems in the child protection system can be “solved” in a relatively short time?
Not necessarily. “The intention is to inject additional resource and energy into raising our game in the short to medium terms,” Singleton says. “I have to report annually on, among other things, the effectiveness of the unit. And that gives me the scope to say whether it needs to continue for longer.”
Roger Singleton will be speaking at Community Care’s conference on Strengthening Practice in Child Protection in central London on 12 June.
To book your place, telephone 020 7347 3574 or go to www.conferencesandtraining.com/child-protection