Tag Archives: Ofsted

SCRs: to publish or not to publish?

In the fallout from the Edlington case – where 2 brothers subjected 2 other children to a sustained attack – aspects of social services have again come under the public microscope. This time, it is serious case reviews (SCRs).

The Conservatives, and others, have called for the full Edlington case SCR to be published, rather than just the summary. Labour has rejected these calls.

As reported by the BBC last week, Conservative leader David Cameron believes fully-published SCRs would lead to a greater understanding of what went wrong and result in quicker action to prevent such events happening again in the future.

In the report, he said: “There is a sense at the moment that it is a sort of establishment stitch-up where all the people who have taken part in this issue are not named, they are not having to take proper responsibility, the public isn’t able to see what has gone wrong and the pressure isn’t there to put it right.”

It seems to me that Cameron is indicating that SCRs should be about ‘naming and shaming’ – to use a tabloid buzzphrase – and damning those who were at fault for the case going wrong. The assumption being that the SCR is there to do that and that there is always someone to point the finger at.

There is a common misconception that SCRs are there to apportion blame. They aren’t. They are – or should be – about learning from mistakes so they don’t happen again in the future. They apply to local conditions and social work practice – out of this context they lose some of their relevance. This should be explained better by the sector.

Secondly, cases are anonymised for a reason; there are child protection factors to be considered, as well as protecting the social care professionals involved. If they were public, would the media pass up the chance to splash the details? The Baby Peter case, for one, indicates otherwise.

Social workers do take proper responsibility; if there is proved to be negligent practice, for instance, they are disciplined. But again, that is not the job of the SCR.

I would argue also that there is pressure to “put things right”, not only from the public, but from within the sector. Ofsted makes regular inspections and there was the recent Social Work Task Force report, but surely all social workers want to ensure that practice is as good as practically possible?

SCRs are not perfect by any means – critics say they often focus on protocol rather than frontline practice – but to open them up fully could create more problems than it solves.

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Serious case reviews are improving

Good news for social work; serious case reviews are improving and 40% are now good, with only 1 in 6 inadequate.

Latest figures from regulator Ofsted – as reported in the Daily Telegraph – covering 114 SCRs between April and December 2009, found that 45 were good, while 51 were adequate. Only 18 were judged inadequate. None were said to be outstanding.

In the year to March 31, 2009, 1 in 3 SCRs, out of 173, were judged to be inadequate.

So while there is clearly still room for improvement, this nevertheless shows that they are moving in the right direction and the messages from Lord Laming’s review and Ofsted’s report Learning lessons from serious case reviews; year 2 have been taken on board and are having an effect.

While these bare statistics don’t reveal how effective the learning is from SCRs – the true barometer of its worth – it does show they are being written to a higher standard at least.

But it was the comments of shadow children’s minister, Tim Loughton that caught my eye. In a couple of sentences he managed to – in my reading of them – insinuate that under a Conservative government the SCR regime will be changed, and that the party has little faith in Ofsted.

Here are the comments, judge for yourself; “We need to re-think this process so that professionals and the public can be reassured that lessons are being learnt.

“For this to happen the Government must agree to publish the full reports, not just executive summaries – at the moment we only have Ofsted’s word to go on that standards are improving.”

It looks pretty clear that under the Tories, SCRs would be published in full. While this would aid transparency – always a political winner – it would also no doubt help journalists to compile anti-social work stories when the next tragedy happens. SCRs should be about learning from why things did (or didn’t) happen and ensuring that mistakes aren’t repeated, rather than damning those involved and I suspect that if they were released in full, they would be used as a stick to beat social work with.

Also, as Ofsted is the regulator of social care, you would think that they are experts in what makes a good SCR and are ideally placed to judge whether standards are improving. Apparently not. Would the government (of any hue) be any better judges, given that they are not trained and/or experienced in child protection? I suspect not.

While Loughton’s comments smack of political points-scoring – expect much, much more of that in the coming months – it does raise questions in my mind about whether a Conservative government will tinker with social care regulation. Surely, stability is what is needed, rather than more changes. We will have to wait and see.

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Children’s social services: impressive despite circumstances

It’s official: Council-run children’s social services departments in England are performing well, in general.

Ofsted has published its 2009 children’s services ratings and revealed that 68% of the 152 councils are performing ‘excellently’ or ‘well’, while another 25% are ‘adequate’.

Only 9 councils – 6% – are judged to be ‘poor’, including Haringey, which neatly avoids another media storm over Baby P.

While the media, inevitably, has thus far focused on the poorly performing councils, it could be argued that it is surprising that more children’s services departments are not failing.

Take Birmingham, for example, one of the councils deemed ‘poor’, much to their chagrin. There, about a fifth of the 722 posts in children’s services were unfulfilled, and absenteeism ran at 25 days per person, according to a report in the Birmingham Post. After some quick calculations in the office on the back of a Post-it, we worked out that about a third of the workforce was missing. Those that were present were dealing with 800 child abuse cases a month, so it’s no wonder the department was at breaking point.

While measures are now in place to improve matters in Birmingham, I doubt that its situation is unique. Nationally, vacancy levels are running at 9.5% of frontline posts in children and families teams, with 9.6% annual turnover of employees, according to the interim report by the Social Work Task Force. Sickness levels are also high – an average of 12 days per social worker – which is 60% more than the national average, according to a recent report in The Independent.

Combine that with rising levels of referrals – the dual effects of Baby P and the recession – and you have to marvel that more children’s services departments aren’t failing and there aren’t more Baby P’s.

It also serves to make Ofsted’s findings look all the more impressive, especially as chief inspector Christine Gilbert claims these inspections were tougher than those in previous years.

It just shows what a good job the majority of social workers do under increasingly difficult circumstances, and should be cause for celebration.

While there is still much work to do to improve services – and the lot of the social worker – it needs to be recognised that a good job is being done in the vast majority of cases.

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Ofsted needs to learn from criticism

Ofsted’s annual report on care, education and skills is out today, but rather than celebrate progress and successes, various groups – notably the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services – have wasted no time in putting the boot into the regulator.

The LGA says Ofsted “should be the calm, measured voice that helps to make child protection services work better rather than feeding people’s fears.”

Then, more provocatively – and obviously aimed at journalists looking for a juicy public-sector punch-up – the LGA added, “Ofsted has become too concerned about protecting its own reputation and places a disproportionate emphasis on publicly highlighting weaknesses in child protection without adequately reflecting the huge amount of good work being done by councils across the country.”

Meanwhile, the ADCS – which has a fractious relationship with Ofsted at the best of times – fuelled the fire with its own report. It said there are “very serious problems” with the current inspection model and that it is “ripe” for reform. However, ADCS did say that Ofsted should continue to inspect education and children’s services.

While regulators aren’t there to be popular, the criticism of Ofsted is stinging and with such venomous feelings towards it indicates that there are problems that need to be addressed.

For the public to have confidence in children’s services and education there has to be confidence in the regulator that governs it. If this is being undermined, it needs to be addressed quickly.

For instance, there is certainly a groundswell of opinion that Ofsted needs to get away from a perceived ‘box-ticking’ culture when it assesses services; it has been said to me that it can feel if they are being ‘marked’ during assessments.

And while Ofsted could probably do more to publicise the good work that is being done within children’s services, this is not solely their problem – the whole sector needs to be better at flagging up good work.

But Ofsted really needs to show that it can recognise criticism and learn from it – much like that it tells councils to after assessments. That way, everyone has the chance to improve and develop.

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