Children’s social care system ‘unsustainable’ and obsessed with targets, warns ADCS

Directors and senior leaders need to totally ‘re-imagine’ their approach to vulnerable children’s care, while Ofsted and government need to end the ‘national obsession’ with targets, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has warned.

Delivering his keynote speech on the future of children’s social care at the 2013 National Children and Adults Services conference in Harrogate, Andrew Webb said the current model of service delivery is unsustainable.

“We have already reached the point in many services that if we cut any further they won’t be worth having, and the consequence where these services have a proven preventative function will be a fairly rapid growth in the use of the services of last resort,” he said.

Obsession with targets

Webb told Community Care: “We can’t do more with less, that much we know. We need to do things differently and re-focus all our attention on need and finding creative ways to identify and meet need. It’s a challenge to our imaginations and our practical abilities.”

The ADCS president also told delegates he believed more should be done to highlight the worrying implications of the national ‘obsession’ with target-driven approaches in children’s social care. “I have taken every opportunity open to me to question the extent to which our national obsessions with measuring improvements in services by creating high level league tables actually helps – and whether the unintended consequences of pursuing one-dimensional targets need to be exposed more forcefully.”

‘Expensive and wasteful’

The sector is guilty of emphasising procedural compliance above outcomes achieved, he said. “We are pre-occupied with deciding whose side of a threshold a child’s life-chances sit, rather than discussing shared responsibilities.”

But to achieve such change, particularly in the current economic climate, services must invest in frontline social workers and ensure they feel empowered, rather than under threat. Webb described the importance of giving social workers freedom and understanding.
“We need to equip social workers to use their skills in the complex world we’re operating in and give them the professional freedom to deal with the fact that there is almost certainly never one way to do things, that every solution will be different,” he said.

Criticism of Ofsted and chief inspector

He addressed Ofsted’s finding that most child safeguarding services are failing, asking: “Is there a crisis in safeguarding and child protection? Or might it be that Ofsted hasn’t calibrated its instruments very effectively?” He cited figures that suggest child homicides in England have fallen by 30% since 1981, saying he is accused of complacency when he tries to present ‘this side of the safeguarding story’.

He also criticised Ofsted ratings that are based on, “an unreal expectation that no harm will ever happen” or “the wonderful clarity of hindsight”, and called for more control over language in sensitive situations. “We have the country’s chief inspector of children’s services’ describing social workers as “pussyfooting around dysfunctional families”: Is that an appropriate way to start a debate about state intervention in family life?”

Webb told Community Care he was confident there was a “common cause” within government, and particularly with the children’s minister, but said it was “vital” to engage Ofsted too. “We’re all trying to achieve the same ends, we just need to join up the means.”

Join in the debate at Community Care Children and Families Live 2013, 14 November, central London

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