The Conservatives have put cutting bureaucracy in child protection and a focus on families at the heart of their policies in children’s social care. Judy Cooper and Camilla Pemberton meet the insiders who would help the Tories achieve their aims
Professor Eileen Munro is a big fish poised to plunge into the Tory tank. The professor of social policy at the London School of Economics is internationally renowned as an expert in child protection and her studies of the UK system have influenced government policy.
If the Conservatives are elected to power, she will head an expert panel to look at ways of slashing bureaucracy in child protection.
Munro shrugs when asked whether she is worried about appearing partisan. “I don’t think it’s a party political issue,” she says. “We all know things have got out of balance and this is a chance to put it right. But I think the Labour government is in the position of having created the current system so it’s more difficult for it to step back.”
The Tories should also take some responsibility for the red tape mess the system is in, she adds. “It evolved from the performance management systems the Tories put in place in the 1980s,” she says.
“They brought targets and indicators into a relationship-based service. Once they realised the targets were having an adverse effect, they put in other targets to try to counteract it. So it went on until we’ve reached the point now where professionals do things to keep government happy and are not focused on how to keep a child safe and happy.”
The current government has made the situation worse with Working Together to Safeguard Children, initially 25 pages long, now running to 300, Munro says. “It can no longer be used in daily practice. It’s become a defence mechanism for senior managers so that when things go wrong they can say ‘we told them what they needed to do’.”
This is partly due to knee-jerk high-profile inquiries into child deaths. The second Laming inquiry after the Baby P case is a perfect example, she says. “He found that an initial assessment was not undertaken because a social worker hadn’t deemed it serious enough. So he makes a recommendation that all referrals should result in an initial assessment.
“There’s no regard as to how many referrals that will result in, what the extra workload will be and the knock-on effects on other children – that is to say how many children will die because social workers are tied up doing initial assessments all day. It becomes yet another target in an already-crowded system. In all these inquiries and reports there has been no attempt to think about what people should stop doing in order to do something new.”
Munro wants to wipe the slate clean. “We’re not talking about trimming back the current forms but re-examining why we record anything and ensuring that what we do record helps children. We have to go back to recording the narrative, not data.”
She concludes that a referral form and an assessment form are needed. She says: “Any core assessment must be built on an initial assessment and it must show reasoning. Planning, assessment and review are not stages in a line of action but a circle that is part of reflection on interaction and intervention.
“To me it would be great if a social worker could say ‘I had a hunch about this but I have rejected it because of such and such’. We need to know why professionals reject other explanations of behaviour.”
Such a system would reinforce critical thinking and analysis – something bypassed in the current system and steadily disappearing from social work, she adds.
Munro is keen that all documents are simple enough for families to read them and flexible enough to take children’s views into account. “That might mean a child’s drawing or a poem,” she says. “We need to be trying to understand children’s experience and not treat them as oddities who must be fitted into the assessment process.”
“The vision I have of the system doesn’t make the job easier. It probably makes it harder, but it also means social workers will have a better understanding of families, why they are behaving in a certain way and what needs to be done to help them.”
Case study: Samantha Callan, Centre for Social Justice
‘Intervene early rather than wait for dysfunction’
Centre for Social Justice leads Tory thinking on prevention
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), the think-tank led by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, has shaped party thinking on early intervention in families, writes Camilla Pemberton.
Dr Samantha Callan, the centre’s chair-in-residence for family and early years, emphasises the importance of a family-centred approach to safeguarding rather than one led by the state.
“A child-centred approach sounds commendable but children thrive best in families,” says Callan. “The idea that safety is guaranteed by the state intervening is wrong. We need a family-centred approach which still has child safety at its core.”
Callan says social workers are often the best advocates of a preventive family-centred approach. “We must challenge the idea that if children come to the attention of social services there is only one route. Social workers I’ve met have been desperate to do preventive work.
“When children are taken into care, people’s parental instincts don’t go away. Helping parents who’ve had a poor parenting model in their own backgrounds is key. If we don’t get it right on the first, second or third child we can’t afford not to get it right on the fourth child.”
Callan says the current system is being designed to increase the number of children in care.
She blames, first, the emphasis that if smaller children are taken into care, their siblings will follow, pushing up referral rates.
Secondly, she says: “Where more people can identify needy children and make referrals, the system itself produces more candidates for the care system.”
The focus for the future, she says, must be on “making sure that the right children are taken into care and that where there is still hope for a family the right services are available to them.”
That’s why the CSJ’s “green paper” on the family championed supporting families through early intervention, she says.
One approach it was keen on included family fostering – an intensive service for vulnerable families deemed at risk. Critics have suggested the model is too expensive, but Callan says: “If there’s a political will the money will be found.”
She adds: “It’s about intervening at the first signs of trouble rather than waiting for severe dysfunction. It’s not about holding problems at bay, but about children realising that they’ve got potential and aspirations. Well-trained professionals and integrated services can make this happen. If we get it right we will see a huge social return on our investment.”
This article is published in the 29 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading ‘Record the narrative, not the data’