It's not something I often do but in the light of comments made elsewhere on this web site it seemed handy to republish Chris Wells thoughts on social service to which he agreed.
Margate and Cliftonville County Councillor Chris Wells, was the Cabinet Member for Children’s Social Services during its last formal inspection in 2008, when it was adjudged to be one of the best in the country. The Gazette asked him exclusively what he though had changed so radically during the last two years……..
‘The first thing to say is that inspections are not always the best measure of good social work. There will be excellent practice going on in any number of cases, but if the legal deadlines have not been met, and the files are not up to date, there is an almost automatic assumption that practice as a whole is poor.
In addition the nature and style of inspection has changed during the last couple of years. Previously, we knew in advance when the Inspectors were coming, and, with a bit of research with fellow councils who had been recently inspected, how they were likely to work. I once commented that my Directors spent around 40% of their time getting ready for inspections, and only 60% on the day job. Haringay’s experiences demonstrated, amongst other things, that the inspection regime as it was could give a department a clean bill of health when there was some very poor practice going on. Now the inspections are not announced and rather more difficult to manage.
The result is that many are being caught out by the new regime; some third of all councils inspected to date under the new regime have been judged inadequate, so Kent is not alone.
The current report contains three consistent and underlying criticisms of the Kent children’s social service operation. Firstly, it identifies concern for social worker caseload, vacancy rates, concern regarding the recording and timing of looked after children actions, and supervision. This presents as a failure to provide solid evidence of consistently good practice across the county. Kent could argue that the timing of this inspection has actually provided a snap shot at a time of great difficulty, when many of these problems are already identified, have management action in place, but have not yet delivered the expected solutions.
This is actually a criticism of the level of professionalism able to be delivered in social work across the county, stretched by vacancy rates and increasing workloads. Kent is already running a number of innovative solutions to the recognised national difficulties in recruiting new social workers; and has indeed been highly successful in bringing new talent into the county at newly qualified, and pre qualified levels. This has lowered the vacancy rates across the county, but has created a differently shaped structure for social work, which in number terms is heavily dependent on newly qualified and relatively inexperienced social workers. This feeds into the supervision concerns as the vacancy rate at Principal Social Worker, the level at which the guidance for these newer entrants is vital, is much higher, an issue discussed in some detail at the last Vulnerable Children’s Scrutiny Committee.
Once again Kent has already moved to cover these gaps, and place in each area a supervision champion to promote the importance of this basic element of social work good practice. Kent’s own innovation in bringing European and other nationalities of social worker into the county to help fill the gaps also attracted criticism, for not having enough resources to support these individuals for long enough in their early months. These same resources are, of course, already stretched with a 30% surge in social work referrals following the Peter Connelly case in Haringay. Again Kent can claim with some justification it has already put an extra £5m into this department, and promised more if needed.
The second area criticised is that of IT and recording systems. The current IT system was demanded and funded by the previous government following the Climbie Inquiry. It has been a disaster for day to day working from the very start, and fails in almost every area of real requirement to make the work happen. It was supposed to be a case management system, rather than simply a recording system. It does not even record as well as previously used systems, and in spite of constant revision and updating, fails more often than it succeeds, and where it does succeed tends to do so by taking the less than obvious route to success. It has all the hallmarks of most recent government attempts to introduce huge all encompassing computer systems - an enormous waste of money, time, energy and effort: most of which could have been saved if any of the programmers had consulted front line users about the screens and files used most regularly.
The third area is probably the most difficult of all…partnership working and capacity to improve. These are areas in which Kent has previously scored highly, and been commended for its innovation and expertise. Here something has gone seriously awry, in the ability of the management, for both professional and political direction, to convince the Inspectors that they have the vision and ability to change what they know is wrong…and bring their public service partners along with them. This was the same Lead Inspector which we had two years ago, so will have had a real personal base line to work from in comparison.
Generally Kent is a strong authority, with a good track record in getting things sorted when they have gone wrong, and I would expect those areas directly under our control to be dealt with swiftly. Some of these criticisms are based upon national difficulties, however, and can only be dealt with through working and cooperation with government and higher authorities.
In particular it is time we had a sensible debate nationally about the manner in which much children’s social services policy is created. It is unique across public service in being constantly assessed on failure rather than success. Since the Maria Colwell tragedy of 1973, through so many other names and enquiries we could all recite, processes and policy are based on the cry ‘it must never happen again’. Yet the general reasons why these cases happen have a common thread – of people who are wicked, or incapable, and often accomplished and excellent hiders of the truth.
Poor social work practice may well have prevented some similar deaths; it may well have missed chances to prevent some of those deaths; but social workers do not kill children. Many children are given better lives than they would have experienced through the dedication of social workers and their service partners: even in poor scoring authorities during inspections.
The great thing about this report is that it has come to us before a tragedy of that sort. Yes we must act. We must reaffirm our dedication and desire to ensure the most vulnerable children in our society have the support they need and expect. County Councillors, held responsible in their role as corporate parent, will greet the report with concern and disappointment, and must now put their energies into putting it right, and placing our inspected scores where they belong, alongside the first class efforts of our frontline staff.
Truly, to famously misquote, two years is a long time in social work.