There is a crisis developing in children’s social care.
The trajectory of Ofsted judgements is heading south, we have a tougher inspection regime and a new cadre of ‘serial offender councils’ which seem to bob in and out of inadequacy from inspection to inspection. The Le Grand review is the latest manifestation of government frustration with the promise of ‘sector-led improvement’ and the search for alternative delivery models.
What interests us is whether the nature of the difficulty that councils face is different in different places. Once in the serial offender bracket does the nature of the problem shift, and hence the content of solution need to shift with it? Do Ofsted improvement plans only ever fight the last war, naming symptoms at the expense of causes? Is this increasingly noxious atmosphere shallowing the pool of directors of children’s services? The answer resoundingly for me is yes.
The system we have in place to keep children safe and allow them strive is prone to sensitivity and fragility and once broken can take time to fix. Whilst there is often consensus that to make it work multiple agencies need to work together more effectively and trust one another, we have noticed four universal stages of difficulty that services often face.
- The initial stage of difficulty can be characterised as losing grip. The service loses sight of its performance, flow slows down and the system begins to choke.
- This can quickly progress into service breakdown, this is where the difficulties begin to become chronic and the service fragments.
- The penultimate phase is best described as ‘systemic crisis’ where the service breakdown begins to affect other partners and agencies and they modify their behaviour to remain in touch with services. The service becomes insular and in a sense quarantines itself, making it difficult to work with partners.
- Finally we move into last phase, ‘Complete Lock’, where behaviours are altered by other parts of the system in anticipation of social care service difficulty. Reputation suffers greatly, leading to recruitment failure and in turn performance suffers further.
The point being that, that while some of the early stages of difficulty can be addressed quite rapidly by quick-fix improvement plans the more complex issues will be poorly served. These are problems years in the making and will take time and commitment to rectify. The first stages of difficulty can be rectified by looking, predominantly, internally. Recruitment targets, tweaked reward package, new benchmarking etc. However, the later stages are when more profound changes are required and being external looking becomes the dominant posture, you must rebuild reputation and some cases create a whole new identity.
Fundamentally this about the prolonged mismatch between problems and solutions that has exacerbated those councils in ‘Complete Lock’. Successive mismatches lowers the sum of capacity available for change, belief begins to drain from the system, as such no one believes can ever get any better and in turn no one will invest in it. Until we collectively face up to this reality then it is difficult to see how we can break the cycle.
We believe there needs to be a new national conversation started about Children’s services. The issues confronting the service are not isolated to the few most public cases. They are universal. The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. There is a crisis developing in children’s social care.
Max Wide, Director, iMPOWER