Reject the radical for the mundane

In the fourth of our series on the future of
child protection, Jane Tunstill argues that talk of system
overhauls should be avoided and that real progress can be made by
pursuing mundane but effective policy changes.

You would think that at a time like this the
options for public debate around the issue of the child protection
system would increase. In fact, they narrow.

Add to this narrowing the temptation to blame
social workers and the public’s preference for drama and scandal in
the otherwise boring debate about public services, and the momentum
for sweeping judgements and across-the-board change can appear
unstoppable. Boring answers, even if they are the right ones, don’t
seem to be enough.

Sometimes we are able to contemplate the
reality that dreadful things would happen even if there were an
abundance of social workers, without abolishing the whole public
child welfare system. But, the draconian alternative, of a
fundamental re-working of the balance between promoting and
safeguarding welfare – ie resorting to ever more compulsory
intervention at the cost of providing fewer family support services
– remains a permanent temptation, to social workers as well as to

In an ideal world, this danger would be
minimised by the current political emphasis on “evidence-based
practice”. This laudable policy-making requirement ought to ensure
that future policy will not be made on the basis of one bad case,
and that routine reference is made to the substantial body of
relevant government commissioned research. We know from Child
Protection: Messages in Research, which was published in
1995,1 and one of its successors, published in
2001,2 that the greatest amount of resource is already
allocated to identifying children at risk of suffering harm, while
in fact major advantages would derive from looking at maltreatment
in the context of children’s wider needs.

The shift from an identification of children
in need who are at risk of suffering harm, to an identification
based on the impact of factors of children’s development has not
yet been achieved.

We should also possess the courage to say that
the child protection system in this country, though by no means
perfect, is not really doing too badly. Research conclusions
certainly do not support the view that large numbers of children
are left too long in harmful circumstances.

The fact is that many of the real and most
promising answers to the child protection dilemmas we face can
almost certainly be located in mundane policy areas such as
managerial and developmental support for social workers in their
work places, and in the resourcing of qualifying and post
qualifying training.

The post-qualifying child care award offers a
very appropriate case study. This Department of Health sponsored
one-year, part-time course is now in its third year. A group of
university departments, including my own, successfully tendered to
run the first set of courses, and it is now offered widely.

Much work went into its design and
implementation, and data on seconded staff numbers were
incorporated in Quality Protects performance indicators. Social
workers in social services departments across the country are
sponsored on to it by their employers, on the basis of DoH funding
to cover two-thirds of the fees and of the money needed to pay for
staff cover.

The original intention was also that this
course would be subject to a nationally commissioned evaluation.
Three years on, no evaluation has been commissioned. Individual
social work candidates across the country experience a huge
difference in the quality and amount of support which their
employers make available to them.

In many courses this may well include anything
from guaranteed study leave, supportive management, and the
provision of texts and secretarial support for assessment
submission, to a virtual absence of any of these. Some social
workers, struggling to capitalise on a vital opportunity to up-date
their child care learning (including child protection) and to reach
demanding assessment requirements, will find themselves denied the
guaranteed study time, and summoned back from college to the office
to do uncovered work. They are certainly often doing a five-day
week in four days. In some boroughs, the national shortage of
social workers deepens the impact.

So we might conclude that one way of improving
child care practice including child protection work, would be to
ensure that management systems treat social workers in a way that
will maximise their chances of staying and doing good work. Why
don’t all social services departments resource library facilities
in the agency, so that all those research texts are available? Why
don’t they ensure that managers themselves feel valued enough
themselves to support the basic grade social workers? Why aren’t
salaries good enough to stave off competition for staff from a
range of area-based initiatives?

The response is that “throwing money at the
problem will not be enough”. Indeed, on its own it won’t be, but
cash shortages in social services departments certainly have a
bearing on these issues. If we can break the cycle of the flawed
treatment of some social workers, we might go a long way to
minimising further the number of horrific abuse cases and the ones
where the system fails children in a variety of subtle and unsung
ways. Dramatic answers aren’t always the right ones. cc

1 Department of Health,
Child Protection: Messages from Research, The Stationery
Office, 1995

2 J Aldgate, J Thoburn,
The Children Act Now: Messages from Research, Stationery
Office, 2001

Jane Tunstill is professor of applied
social studies, Royal Holloway College, University of


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.