‘The defensiveness from the Department for Education was perplexing’

The elephant in the committee room was that government must be accountable for failing services, not civil servants, writes Jonathan Stanley

Elephant in the room
Photo by Jeff Blackler/Rex Features

By Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Children’s Homes Association

The recent report from the National Audit Office accurately portrays the current condition of our children’s services. Coming at the end of a parliament, it focused on what one member of the committee called ‘value for kids’. It is a report card on the government’s work for looked-after children. It tells the incoming government exactly what they will be inheriting.

The elephant in the committee room was that this ought not to have been a public interrogation of civil servants who are only ever carrying out the wishes of their politicians. As parliament will soon rise it was by proxy the last chance to hold the government to account for the current situation. Like Joshua and Jericho, time and again it was raised – accurate data on needs and a strategy to deliver improvements is absent.

Defensiveness

The defensiveness from the Department for Education (DfE) was perplexing. The report showed more needs to be done. The Public Accounts Committee was an opportunity to share the lines of development national and local government have for the future.

Through its clear analysis, the NAO report assists our senior DfE officials and directors of children’s services with an understanding of their enmeshed, entangled present. Their wisdom could be part of a different future for looked-after children.

For three years providers and practitioners have been unstinting in feeding their knowledge and experience into the reforms for children’s services. We came to hear inspiration and experience confidence in direction, but left with expectation diminished and clear evidence of the confusion that results from government’s centralisation of legislation, regulation and innovation.

Straying from role

One example was to hear Ofsted is running best practice sessions for local authorities when their role is to regulate. Such straying from role and task leads to accountability being lost in a fog of dispersed rather than task-directed activity.

Government was not decisive about who should do what with various data. Where there could be creative dialogue through correctly deployed roles and tasks what we have is deadening centralisation, and compliance presented as creativity.

Practitioner and provider valuable inputs are being wasted, they are doing their best for looked-after children, in spite of, not because of, policy. Providers and practitioners’ commitment to the best practice is shared informally, for example through the vibrant collective working together by the memberships of provider and practitioner organisations.

But this is just masking reality. Indeed, one committee member saw the NAO report as ‘generous’ to DfE officials.

Fundamental failure

Lack of funding is a factor, but this comes from a fundamental failure of government to take up and lead corporate parenting responsibilities across its agencies. It sees looked-after children in terms of financial costs rather than investment in futures.

If cash is tight then with a needs-led strategy we can do the very best with what we have.

Worryingly, in but a few weeks the politicians will not be there and this could be the situation we inherit and inhabit until they sort themselves out – perhaps into the next coalition and this might take much longer than previously: weeks, maybe months.

We should not wait. Those doing the work should take the space of this interregnum to boldly construct the national consensus that is currently absent. Those who have parenting responsibilities must melt the different ways of seeing the issues before us.

We have trust to establish and a child’s world to create. It is important work that we have been delayed from achieving for too long.

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2 Responses to ‘The defensiveness from the Department for Education was perplexing’

  1. Stephen Blunden, CEO Childhood First January 14, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

    Spot on. For those of us who provide specialist residential therapeutic services for disturbed children and young people, our experience has been one of ever-more centralised Government dictation as to how to run and manage our services. Despite the fact that we are a charity set up to treat those children and young people who have been failed by the state’s mainstream approach, and have been doing this with world-renowned success for 50 years. Ofsted now dictates almost every detail of our lives, rather than focus on the technical weaknesses of their own unreliable and invalid approach to assessment. They then come and scrutinuse regularly to ensure that we are doing everything exactly as they require. This has become a monster, madness, a Kafka-esque approach. Ofsted cannot run every school and children’s Home, which is what it feels like. And you do not achieve innovation, development and progress, even where there are weaknesses, and perhaps especially so, by the kind of endless stream of punitive communications we see in the media. This all has to change, for the sake of our children and quickly. It is one of the biggest public expenditure scandals of recent years, a grossly misdirected enterprise, and it has inevitably failed. The sense is that it has occurred because politicians seek the kind of boost that always accrues to them from being seen to take apparently controlling and punitive actions. There were signs at the outset that the Coalition was less politically reactive than the previous Government, in this domain, but it has not proved to be the case. Chasing votes is very different to serious multi-faceted strategies to address complex problems.

  2. Maggie Danesfahani January 14, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    There is no advantage in disadvantage. This is where many young people land in the never ending yo yo called the care system. Gone are the days they really were the centre. I grew up in a care home, there was one log book completed by the Manager. Were we better off? Yes we were! Staff didn’t have to spend hours filling out forms, making sure all the i’s were dotted and that every part of our life was scrutinised and recorded. They were not endlessly preparing for the boggy man to visit, nor were they spending all their time trying to repair the damage after the event. Most of the homes and schools we visit monthly to undertake their Regulation 33, are already suffering a heavy load of scrutiny which is unbalanced, requires more not less staff time to pick and unpick the meaning, the direction and the actual requirement. No two Inspectors seem to sing from the same hymn sheet. All in all, those trying to care are those who seem to be consistently punished for trying to do their best. Just when they get it! It changes again. Having seen it from both sides of the fence it is high time the boggy man or the elephant is exposed for what it is. Ruthless demand from a blind, backward facing, big brother. Maybe those best practice sessions would be better spent working with providers to make sense of what is ‘actually’ required from the incoming Quality Standards and Inspection Framework they will undoubtebly be left to decipher and embed alone.