James Blewett reviews research on the effectiveness of local safeguarding children boards and finds evidence that we are yet to maximise their potential in terms of early intervention and child welfare
KEY WORDS: Local safeguarding children boards • child protection
AUTHORS: Alan France, Emily R Munro, Amanda Waring
Aim: To examine the extent to which local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) address the weaknesses of their predecessors, area child protection committees. In particular, the study evaluates how LSCBs promote effective inter-agency work in child protection.
Methodology: A national survey and mapping exercise of all LSCBs in England, followed by a more in-depth focus on six LSCBs. In these six case studies, interviews were held with the LSCB chairs and business managers and, in all but one, with the directors of children’s services. Across the six areas, interviews were carried out with 49 LSCB members and 132 frontline professionals, including managers. In addition, there was an analysis of board minutes and, in two areas, a focus on costing and an analysis of relationships between individual practitioners and their agencies.
Conclusion: LSCBs promote a greater sense of shared responsibility for child protection and stronger leadership than previous arrangements. However, engaging board members in LSCB meetings remains a challenge and, at times, serious case reviews dominate the LSCB agenda. The study was carried out before the last election, but, despite subsequent changes in policy, the report is an extremely useful contribution to the debate about how the child protection system in England can be further developed at a local level.
Lord Laming recommended setting up local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) following his inquiry in 2003 into the death of Victoria Climbié. The boards were formally established under the Children Act 2004 and rolled out across England in 2006. Area child protection committees, which LSCBs replaced, were felt to be lacking in authority and dominated by children’s social care. Many in the sector thought they were not an effective mechanism for promoting inter-agency accountability or high quality child protection practice.
LSCBs were given more powers, greater senior representation and, it was hoped, a clearer and wider role in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, rather than an explicitly narrow focus on child protection. This study was commissioned by the last Labour government to look at how effectively LSCBs were meeting these aspirations.
The authors conclude that LSCBs have brought about improvements in inter-agency child protection practice. In particular, they identify a greater sense of shared responsibility for child protection in most localities; it is no longer seen as the sole concern of children’s social care services. LSCBs also appear to offer stronger leadership than area child protection committees. Many of the boards set clearer priorities and there had, in most cases, been some progress in terms of the development of a “shared understanding of child safeguarding”.
Crucially, the study concludes that most frontline staff are aware of their responsibilities for raising concerns about children they felt were suffering harm. The study acknowledges, that such improvement needs to be seen in the context of other reforms, such as the common assessment framework.
But there are areas, identified by the study, where LSCBs are not functioning so effectively. In most cases, local agencies have not embraced the wider safeguarding agenda and the boards remain, for the most part, exclusively focused on child protection. At the time the study was carried out, children’s trusts (since abolished) existed in each area, and the authors felt that in many areas there needed to be greater clarity as to the respective roles between these two structures.
In this context, it was felt that local authorities have struggled to establish accountability mechanisms, especially for chairs of LSCBs. Governance arrangements, the authors argue, generally remain weak. Despite this, many chairs have provided strong leadership. The authors welcome the introduction, following the death of Peter Connelly, of a requirement for LSCB chairs to be independent. However, this could make it more challenging to link to the inter-agency network.
While the report shows that the level of seniority of staff in member agencies has increased, securing high levels of participation by board members in LSCB meetings remains a challenge. The most effective size for a LSCB appears to be between 20 and 25 members.
However, the authors conclude that it is not simply the level of participation that has an effect on the degree to which LSCBs are able to fulfil all of their responsibilities. The time and resources required to undertake serious case reviews (SCRs), in particular, has made it more difficult to fulfil other responsibilities. Indeed, in some areas SCRs dominate the activity of the boards.
Another possible effect of relatively low levels of participation is that, in many areas, effective communication channels between the LSCB and its partner agencies remain relatively weak.
The authors recommend that participation needs to be higher; if that were achieved, board members might see themselves as representatives of the LSCB, as well as of their individual agencies.
The study concludes that, while practice varies widely across the country, the most effective LSCBs are those that are realistic about what they can achieve. Nevertheless, if LSCBs are to continue to be seen as an important driver for change in terms of reform and improvement of child protection, they will need the resources to carry out this role, which will have implications for local and national policy-makers.
This study was carried out before the last election and, in some respects, the authors’ conclusions have been superseded by further developments in policy. Children’s trusts have been abolished and LSCBs are operating against a backdrop of severe cutbacks. In this context, local authorities are being asked to focus on the most vulnerable in the community. This would suggest that LSCBs should prioritise child protection rather than the wider safeguarding agenda.
However, the reviews by Graham Allen and, in particular, Eileen Munro emphasise the importance of early intervention. They point out that it is short-sighted for agencies to intervene only when family difficulties are entrenched and severe. Munro’s review of child protection raises wider challenges to LSCBs in that she believes they are “uniquely positioned and accountable within local areas to monitor how professionals and services are working together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people. They are also well placed to identify emerging practice challenges and areas for improvement and development”. The government has agreed with her recommendation that guidance be amended in an attempt to secure higher levels of participation from senior leaders of local agencies such as health and the police.
Munro also challenges LSCBs over how they conduct serious case reviews. She agrees with this study’s finding that SCRs dominate the work of some LSCBs. She, too, agrees that SCRs tend to pin failings in the child protection system on individual practitioner error, rather than looking at the wider systemic issues that LSCBs are in such a strong position to identify.
Despite policy changes, this study is a useful contribution to the debate about how the child protection system can be developed locally. It does not offer simplistic solutions to the challenges, but rather lays out the terrain of the future debate.
● LSCBs should continue to explore ways of encouraging higher levels of participation amongst partner agencies.
● LSCBs are operating in a challenging economic environment but need resources if they are to fulfil their role. While it is tempting to focus exclusively on child protection systems and procedures, consideration of the wider preventative child care system is an important component of an effective child protection strategy.
● The management of LSCBs needs further development, particularly training and other service development issues.
● In a period when the government is promoting “localism”, much of this development work will need to be driven by local managers and practitioners.
About the author: James Blewett is a researcher for King’s College London’s Social Care Workforce Research Unit and the London co-ordinator of Making Research Count
● Munro, E and France, A (2011) Implementing Local Safeguarding Children Boards: managing complexity and ambiguity, Child and Family Social Work (advanced Access), Blackwell
● Munro, E (2011) The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report- A child-centred system. Stationary Office, ● Department for Education (2011) A child Centred system: the Government Response to the Munro review Stationary Office