Shireen Ritchie is best known as the step mum of Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Ritchie. Less well known is the fact that her own mother was adopted, all of which gives her first hand experience of the complexities of modern family life. This should stand her in good stead as the new chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board.
She took over from Les Lawrence last month and has already waded into the debate over the role of Ofsted in helping councils improve post Baby P.
“If you have an inspection regime, it can point out when things are not going as well as they should be going.
“But it should be two-way. There should be some help and guidance to make the improvements. And it feels to me that that is missing,” says the cabinet member for family and children’s services at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Her message to directors of children’s services, fellow lead members and Ofsted inspectors alike is: “Get out there and actually see what things are like on the ground.”
Ritchie is adamant that sitting around in offices having meetings, reading emails, and talking to managers is no way to fully understand, assess or appreciate quality of care.
Instead, she believes the focus for all decision-makers should be on witnessing services first hand, talking to both the social workers and children and families.
“That might also help to raise morale,” Ritchie says. “It’s remarkable the impact quite a small visit can have on people. I think that’s an important role for lead members to do. And when a particularly good piece of work comes to their attention, they should write and thank people.
“The other interesting thing is what young people in care say about their social workers. They like their social workers. They are key people in their lives. They are very positive about them. We probably ought to hear the voices of young people more when we are talking about social workers. Their experiences are usually very good.”
Ritchie was a member of shadow children’s minister Tim Loughton’s 2007 Commission on Social Workers. She says this has made her “very alert to the negative images that are out there about social workers” and acknowledges there could be a future role for the Local Government Association (LGA) in tackling that.
Although Ritchie states that one of her goals is to ensure the LGA board she chairs doesn’t become a “political battlefield”, it is not too hard to imagine issues that may well rock the boat.
ContactPoint is a case in point. The Conservatives have already suggested they would scrap the database for all children in England should they win the next general election. And Ritchie admits she is uneasy about its ability to protect those children most at risk.
“I think it feels better, as a non-professional, to concentrate on getting the information about the most vulnerable group of children absolutely right.
“By spreading the net wider, it may be that some children fall through that net. That would be my concern.”
One thing board members from all political persuasions are likely to agree on, though, is their top priority: safeguarding. For Ritchie, part of this is about closer working with partner agencies, and particularly health.
“It could be said that children’s social services and safeguarding haven’t necessarily been at the top of the list of priorities for health authorities,” she says.
“The lion share of the funding for local safeguarding children boards has been carried by local authorities in the early years of setting up, which I think was perfectly right. But that needs to be looked at and more balanced now to make them really work properly. We need to make sure that there is a full commitment from all the other agencies involved in the LSCB.”
Ritchie is concerned about the funding for other parts of the system too, particularly in the light of Lord Laming’s recommendations in his recent progress report on child protection services, the recent court ruling that places additional obligations on local authorities in terms of accommodating and supporting more homeless 16- and 17-year-olds, and the rise in referrals to the care system post Baby Peter.
The scale of the problem is almost anyone’s guess. “I can’t say if local authorities are equipped to deal with it,” Ritchie admits. “But it feels like a lot of pressure on them.
“It is a significant concern as to how local authorities are going to manage to cope with that.”