Damning child protection report sparks fears of new ‘get tough’ approach

As social work braces itself for yet another damning Ofsted inspection report for Doncaster, Community Care understands the government is casting about for different “intervention” approaches when councils fail to protect children adequately

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The sector is bracing itself today for yet another damning Ofsted inspection report for Doncaster, despite hopes the troubled council had been turning a corner.

Coming on top of Birmingham’s recent inadequate rating, and fears that five out of 10 local authorities are going to fail the new Ofsted inspections, there is now fierce debate on the most successful strategies to create real change within children’s social care.

Councils like Birmingham and Doncaster have been under government intervention or improvement notices for up to four years and yet significant change has proven difficult to achieve.

Community Care understands the government is casting about for different “intervention” approaches when councils fail to protect children adequately.

On the table for consideration is the sector-led improvement model, favoured by the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS). However, also being considered is making greater use of the private sector and companies such as Serco or Capita.

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, argues there is currently too much “noise” that surrounds a council finding itself in difficulty – Ofsted recommendations, peer review, government requirements and independent chairs of improvement boards.

“This means there can be a lot of activity generating a lot of heat but not generating progress,” he says.

 High staff turnover

Jones points out that once a children’s services department “goes over the cliff edge” into inadequate it often leads to high staff turnover, a loss of confidence and expensive risk-averse practice.

“What’s needed is calm and measured leadership, and strategies to increase skills and confidence to achieve a stable workforce.” Committed support from elected members of a council is crucial, he adds.

“I do think that in some councils there is an issue about political governance not being sensible and engaging in intimidating or bullying behaviour. Certainly that has been in true in the past of both Birmingham and Doncaster.”

Jones is in favour of setting up an independent and temporary board in such cases to oversee the professional practice and take over the governance of the children’s services department, removing the influence of elected members.

Nick Berbiers, a specialist interim children’s services manager who was a senior member of the change team in Doncaster under the first government intervention, argues the change process is not well understood by the sector, councils and government.

“Change and improvement management in social care is frequently mistaken for normative children’s social care management. It’s not. It is a specialism within a specialism. If someone has been a successful manager or director it is thought they will, by default, be a good change and improvement manager. That does not hold true at all. Intervention situations require very specific skills, aptitudes and methodological approaches.

Managing change

“The other thing that needs to change is the timescale mentality that exists in some quarters. There is frequently a six months to one year parameter in people’s minds but there is no evidence, logic or management science to support that notion. It’s usually based on the hope that the additional costs involved will cease after that timeframe.

“As a rule of thumb I would say the evidence suggest that change teams need to be in place for at least 18 months to 2 years before they start transitioning out.”

Berbiers believes the government, alongside councils, should recruit a permanent, salaried group of change and improvement managers who can form teams when required.

“This would reduce the ad-hoc element of team formation that exists at present and it would allow for much needed tracking and research about what change methodologies work best in which situations.”

While this would be expensive, he points out that currently councils will often go through a vast number of “interim” managers for equal expense and very little result.

He also believes such a pool of managers would become a resource for councils to call on if they felt they were getting into difficulties or wanted some outside expertise.

Private sector help

The idea of calling on outside, private expertise is an idea that Sandwell Council has already begun to explore.

Last week it announced it would be entering into a 30-month contract with children’s services consultancy iMPOWER to provide an interim DCS as well as additional management support, human resources and training.

Sandwell chief executive Jan Britton says the move has been proactive on Sandwell’s part. Although it achieved its first “adequate” Ofsted rating earlier this year, their current DCS has resigned and the prospect of tougher Ofsted inspections raises the spectre of a slip back.

While he likes the sector-led improvement model, “I don’t believe there are quite enough tools in the sector-led box currently to meet the needs of councils, like Sandwell, that have such a troubled history”.

He points out that over the last 12 years Sandwell has had nine directors of children’s services and been under three government improvement notices.

“That means we carry a lot of baggage from the past that just gets heavier and heavier for us to handle. We have to do something radically different to make sure we break with the past completely.”

Britton points out that the chances of success are much greater because the solution is “owned” by elected members and the council was able to interview different companies to assess if their offer fitted with their vision.

“When you have someone appointed by Westminster or Whitehall and imposed upon a council it makes the job that much harder.”

Sue White, professor of social work at Birmingham University, agrees, pointing out there is ample evidence that self-set goals are much more effective at achieving change than the outside imposition of targets.

She argues Ofsted inspections should be pared down to ensure robust local quality assurance procedures are in place in each council and they are effective.

Colin Green, director of children’s services at Coventry, says what is often overlooked is the development of social workers as confident practitioners able to achieve change for children and families, which is central to any service getting better outcomes.

This requires social workers becoming independent leaders and change experts in their own right who take accountability for the decisions they take and the differences they have made to each child on their caseload.

“There has been a great deal of work on management and managing the system but much less on how to create leadership at practitioner and first line manager level. Yet it is not an option if the aspirations for social work are to be met,” he says.

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