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Why Croydon's social work shortcomings should prompt change

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Croydon LBC has joined the children’s services list of shame – those councils deemed unable to deliver that most essential of tasks, keeping children safe.

Under a government intervention, trouble shooter Eleanor Brazil is to be sent into the south London borough as commissioner to conduct a three-month assessment of its children’s services.

This follows an Ofsted inspection of the department. The regulator’s report made sobering reading.

It spoke of “widespread and serious failures in the services provided” and a “legacy of poor practice characterised by drift and delay in the provision of key services”.

“Weak managerial oversight at all levels has not ensured that basic social work practice is of a good enough standard,” the report stated. “Children do not receive robust and timely responses to ensure that risk is reduced and their needs are met.”

But it is not just Croydon which has been under fire. Throughout the country there are indications of shortcomings.

There are the most prominent safeguarding failures (notably today, Derbyshire Safeguarding Children Board’s serious case review into the death of one-year-old Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith, kicked to death by her mother, says social workers failed to be sufficiently inquisitive).

And there are the high-profile departmental failures. Birmingham and Sunderland city councils, Sandwell and Doncaster MBCs and Slough BC are among those to have given up or soon to give up power over services to children’s trusts after problems emerged or tragedy hit.

But many more councils than these are under pressure. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ record of Ofsted single inspection framework inspections of nearly every top tier authority shows just 35% of areas have achieved coveted good or outstanding ratings. As many as 45% were deemed to require improvement and 23% were inadequate.

Deficiencies have resulted in children being failed. The epic scale of abuse of children in Rotherham MBC’s care is the highest profile example.

However the unrelenting pressure for improvement has had an undeniable impact on council workforces, from frontline social workers to council chief executives.

In a recent LGC interview outgoing Worcestershire CC chief executive Clare Marchant, who saw her council rated inadequate last autumn and was warned children were at risk of ‘significant harm’, described the safeguarding of children as “still the thing that keeps me awake at night”.

“In the seven years I have been here and three-plus years as chief executive, safeguarding children has absorbed more of my time and been more difficult to crack than anything I have done in my entire career,” Ms Marchant said.

Many are now asking whether the unrelenting pressure is counterproductive, driving strong performers from social work and local government.

In an article for LGC, Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and a former director of social care, named frequent management changes (alongside the government’s imposition of a specific social work model) as one of the biggest causes of difficulties.

“The response of the councils to managers not achieving improved performance data and enhanced Ofsted gradings within 12-18 months was to sack the managers. The merry-go-round of managers coming and going left a service with little direction and with workers understandably withholding their commitment from newly arriving senior managers who were likely to be here today and gone tomorrow.”

And LGC revealed earlier this year how the Department of Education was discussing abating its policy of permanently removing struggling children’s social care services from council control, in favour of a policy of peer support. The sustainability of the children’s trust model is open to question after LGC last week revealed how the DfE is covering the VAT liabilities of Doncaster and Slough’s children’s trusts.

There is also a renewed debate about the impact of austerity. LGC revealed in July how children’s services departments had overspent by £1bn over the past three years. Quite simply the pressures are becoming ever greater and children’s services are consuming ever more resources.

ADCS president Alison Michalska said austerity was devastating the preventative part of children’s services and urged a rethink.

“We do need government to work with us to throw the juggernaut into reverse before our children’s services become wholly reactive, specialist, blue light services funded on a fraying shoestring,” she told her organisation’s annual conference.

Mark Rogers, Birmingham City Council’s former chief executive who was forced from his role at least partially as a result of longstanding shortcomings in social work in the city, wrote on the subject for LGC in the run-up to the general election.

He predicted the coming five years would see a “genuinely interesting and intensely challenging debate about the relationship between money and performance” in children’s services.

Mr Rogers predicted the legacy of Ofsted’s former chief inspector Michael Wilshaw would be challenged, with the regulator being forced to confront the financial context in which councils operate, rather than just lambast them with poor ratings.

So Croydon could be a test case. Yes, it has been failing children, but could it be here that evidence of a more sophisticated response to the problem emerges? Action is clearly required in the London borough but the old responses of the Cameron and Wilshaw eras may have run their course. Now would be a good time for the government to show that it is working to support social workers rather than humiliate them.

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