It’s tougher at the top

Views from front-line staff
Lord Laming’s criticism of senior management has been applauded by
front-line staff tired of taking the rap from the media and public
when a child known to social services dies.

Mark Jowett, a senior social work practitioner in a child care
assessment team at West Sussex social services department, says
Laming’s words are a positive start to turning the department
hierarchies on their heads.

“Senior management can be perceived as being in an ivory tower.
But, when it comes to being accountable, the first port of call
should be the director,” he says.

“My experience is that the further up the hierarchy you go the less
attached you are to the real work social workers are doing and the
easier it is to distance yourself from the emotional side of the
work.” This makes it easier for them to make decisions that are
resource-led rather than needs-led, he says.

Accountability needs to be clear, supervision must be in place and
everything must be recorded, he says. “You should be accountable to
your line manager and so on upwards.”

Supervision is all important for front-line staff, says John
Williams, a former front-line social worker in child protection who
now chairs child protection conferences. “Social workers are part
of an organisation,” he says. “The quality of work they do is the
responsibility of the whole organisation. Sharing responsibility
for children’s lives is very important and that’s why it’s right
that team managers accept responsibility for all decisions being

Marie Barnett, a social worker in the referral and assessment team
for children and families at a council in south west England,
agrees. Barnett – not her real name – sees her responsibility as
making an immediate judgement on the seriousness of a situation and
action to be taken. Beyond that there is a responsibility to make
sure that the information is recorded and brought to her manager’s
attention, she says.

“By the time it’s an established child protection case there is
multi-agency involvement. If this is working properly the social
worker shouldn’t be solely responsible. They might bear some
responsibility for some lack of communication within that
structure, but it’s a wider process than one worker from one

Barnett believes keeping detailed case records is an important
responsibility for front-line staff. “It’s a huge task and there is
a temptation to curtail case notes but I always think if something
happens the detail becomes vital.”

There can be many factors behind a child’s death other than it
being the fault of the front-line worker: poor supervision,
understaffing, a management decision that went wrong. But, says
Jowett, from an emotional point of view “the bottom line is that,
even if your practice wasn’t in question and it was one of those
things, you would inevitably feel responsible – it’s human

VIews form social services directors
Directors of social services, as those at the centre of
the chain of responsibility, bear the brunt of Laming’s
recommendations. But do they feel it is feasible – as has been
suggested – for them to spend significant time working alongside
front-line staff? And would they welcome the opportunity to “pass
the buck” for social services failures on to chief executives?

Rob Hutchinson, Portsmouth Council
“What I understand Lord Laming to mean is that senior
officers need to know more than just the number-crunching bits,
like how many cases are being dealt with.

“They need to know about the staff vacancies position, about the
impact of those vacancies and what isn’t being done. They need to
know about the quality of service being provided, and about the
morale of the staff. And they need to know whether there are
corners being cut in assessments.

“In other words they must know about the quality as well as the
quantity of the work and it is right to demand that senior officers
know this. Equally the chief executive should be aware of problems
in delivering the service and the levels of spending on children’s
services and where the dangers are.

“This requires directors and senior officers to visit the front
line. It would be difficult if not impossible to visit a day each
week. But this is a call for us to do better at seeing things for
ourselves, and each of us will have to judge what that might mean
in terms of frequency of visits.”

“I don’t see this as an opportunity to blame anyone but more an
emphasis on vulnerable children being a priority for the council
and other agencies, and for organisations and departments to accept
responsibility for contributing to their welfare.” viewS from
social services directors

Anthony Douglas, Suffolk Council
“I visit front-line teams as often as I can, but popping in or even
being on duty desks for a couple of hours can’t get me in touch
with the quality of assessments and care plans. Nor can it allow
you to drill down into individual cases.

“Also, I have more than 20 child protection front lines in Suffolk,
so being on each for a day a week would require me to mutate into

“I rely on lines of communication staying open, so my leadership
team can be aware of and respond to a difficulty in any part of the
service. But the most important element is good systems which
ensure the basics on cases are being carried out, with an automatic
escalation trigger if they aren’t.

“I expect to be held accountable for service failure, and see this
now as part and parcel of the job.

“I’m not interested in blaming anyone else, but I am struggling to
manage the range of existing demands, and will have to stop doing
some other work which is important to individual user groups in
order to dedicate time to following up the Victoria Climbie

Robert Lake, Staffordshire Council
I accept that I carry the ultimate responsibility, not
least because as the social services department role is a statutory
post, I believe we have responsibilities which cannot be delegated
upwards to chief executives.”

“Intimate knowledge of the front line is very difficult [to find]
in a large authority. My responsibility is to ensure that there are
sound supervision policies at all levels and for me to check, from
time to time, that these are being followed. I also need to make
sure that the chain of command and communication is explicit and
that it works, on a two-way basis.

“I have to rely on my management tiers to keep me briefed, albeit I
do get out and about as much as possible (we need to recall that
the total number of teams or establishments or other workplaces in
my department numbers something like 150).”

“I meet the middle management of the department every two months
and meet team managers on a six-monthly basis. But, in the same way
as I must rely on individual workers following clear and
communicated child protection procedures, I must, on a daily basis,
rely on the line management structure to keep me briefed.”

“One of my sadnesses about Laming’s request is that he seems to
have forgotten the realities of managing large departments (as his
was in Hertfordshire) and to have constructed some of the
recommendations in the belief that all departments are a similar
size to the London boroughs in question.”

Views from chief executives
Lord Laming has unambiguously laid the final
responsibility for child protection with local authority chief

During the inquiry, Laming heard a succession of local authority
senior officers and elected members abdicating responsibility for
Victoria’s death.

Reasons given by former Haringey Council chief executive Gurbux
Singh, Haringey councillor Gina Adamou and Brent Council chief
executive Gareth Daniel for their failures were all described by
Laming as unacceptable.

So what do chief executives and councillors think of Laming’s call
for increased accountability? And what do they know about their
social services departments?

Redcar and Cleveland Council chief executive Colin Moore says chief
executives should ensure the “quality systems are in place and that
management information is effectively scrutinised”. But he adds
they cannot be expected to repeat the work done by their

The report also calls for councillors and senior officers to ensure
they are kept fully informed about the delivery of local services
and not to accept what they are told at face value.

Moore says he constantly reviews analyses of child protection cases
and looks for patterns that indicate problems. But he adds it is
not “realistic to expect chief executives to know everything that
is happening on the front line”.

Rita Stringfellow, leader of the Labour group and former leader of
North Tyneside Council, says North Tyneside’s all-party Quality
Protects panel, on which she sits, has difficulty accessing
up-to-date information. She says councillors should be told about
delays in information sharing between social services and other
organisations. And she urges councillors to use performance
indicators and the Quality Protects framework to ensure the
appropriate child protection work is done.

Although councillors can now approach North Tyneside’s new chief
executive without reproach, this was not always the case.
Stringfellow says that, as council leader in October 2001, she
instructed officers to recruit social workers to work with children
and families. Budget pressures prevented them doing this but they
did not tell her. “I was extremely distressed when I found out, but
lessons have been learned by the officers and it will never happen
again,” she says.

Alan Barnish, Cambridgeshire Council
If any council knows what those involved in the Victoria
Climbie Inquiry experienced, it is Cambridgeshire. The death in
1994 of six-year-old Rikki Neave changed the way its social
services department operated and how child protection cases were
dealt with.

Barnish, who became chief executive in 1997, backs Laming’s call
for greater accountability. “Management is about exercising
judgement and ensuring you have information sources to have a good
understanding about potential problem areas.”

He says he would never become involved in individual casework and
does not have the professional training or experience to do

It is the role of senior managers, Barnish adds, to make risk
assessments and prioritise areas of high risk. “My most important
responsibility is to advise the cabinet and the council on how to
deploy its limited resources.”

Barnish admits Cambridgeshire learned the hard way after Rikki’s
death and says it now has a “very open culture” where issues on
individual children and quality and resources are freely aired. He
adds councillors contact him if they feel services are

He does not intend to implement Laming’s recommendations
immediately and wants clarification about what services they apply
to. “Laming raises important issues but circumstances differ and
every council needs to be allowed to devise its own solutions with
partner agencies,” he says.

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