By Anthony Douglas
Good children’s services contribute to the progressive defining then embedding of children’s rights in civic society.
They are part of the hallmark of a civilised society – that vulnerable children are safeguarded in their present situation and that their future is well supported. The oversight of a tough but fair inspection regime plus robust case auditing carried out supportively with practitioners, are must haves to shine a searchlight on a poor service.
Receiving an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted just means fewer children are being let down by those organisations, including mine, than in others, but even in outstanding organisations, some children are being let down. Throughout Cafcass, we have zero tolerance of failing to protect a child and zero tolerance of failing to support a vulnerable child’s better future. It means we have a culture of high expectations for ourselves and for the children we have responsibility for.
It took Cafcass the whole of my thirteen years as chief executive to move the organisation from being deeply inadequate to outstanding. There was no quick fix, just crucial building blocks which had to be put in place.
Building blocks for lasting improvement
We had many false starts. It was never easy. Often it felt impossible. In some ways that is how the children we work with feel about their present and their future. But even when those building blocks were in place, it took us many years of relentless, focused work every day.
Resilience was important to bounce back from adversity, to ‘go again’. Lasting improvement needs countless political strategies, policy changes, performance management decisions and personal commitments.
For us there were thousands of such decisions and commitments every day, every week, every month and every year. Everyone in Cafcass played a key role and the following building blocks helped us get to ‘outstanding’.
The first was to change the culture in the organisation to being visibly, tangibly and experientially child-focused and child-inclusive.
The second was to ensure that leadership involves every single member of staff and contractor – that of their own professional task. The third was to make that professional task clear – even great leaders can get in a muddle without a clear role.
The fourth was to have enough stability of leadership to hold a culture together for long enough so meaningful change and sustained improvement could be delivered. Although it is sometimes necessary, frequent regime change is too often a distraction.
Next, backroom services such as HR have a crucial role to play and need to be frontline facing. Finally, systems and processes must all work smoothly, to ensure consistency and everything in an organisation works. This includes equipping staff with good technology, an instantly available health and wellbeing programme and a model of flexible working to help staff manage their busy lives and competing demands.
The next level
It took us a more than a decade to move from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ so do not despair if you think you’ll never get there. It does take time.
We must now move to the next level. The next level is always the next child and working to ensure she or he gets an outstanding service from us.
My uncle has a clock made in 1620 which has been keeping time perfectly, with a little help along the way, for nearly 400 years. ‘Outstanding’ is not a temporary state and status. In Cafcass, we are responsible for 130,000 children a year.
The reason we must have zero tolerance of poor services is that if a service to any one of those children is poor, they may have lost their only chance of a safe present and a stunning future.
Anthony Douglas is CEO of Cafcass