It is a year, almost to the day, since Professor Munro’s substantial and well-thought out report into child protection was published. She put down the challenge to local authorities to reshape their social care services; to focus on early help; to better support families in crisis and to do more to manage the risks inherent in child protection work.
In doing so, Professor Munro asked us to reform our workforce strategies, the structure of our services and our very way of thinking about risk and harm: this is systemic reform that requires the attention of senior leaders at the highest levels.
Directors of children’s services and their senior management teams have been eager to take up the challenge, individually and collectively. Systemic change does not begin or end on the edges of the child protection service – the system under review is the system of services for children and families, from those requiring early help, through those on the edge of care, to those who have been successfully adopted and require post-adoption support.
Such reform will need to consider the changes to heath, to education and the budget reductions being faced by local authorities, as well as the opportunities presented by health and well-being boards. Many authorities are taking the opportunity to redesign community based preventative services for both children and adults. There are emerging examples of early help strategies that bring together a range of already existing services under a new banner, giving staff a clear signal that they are part of a wider offer of support services for families.
One of Professor Munro’s main critiques of the current system was the emphasis on targets and indicators collected nationally. Professor Munro’s view is that these targets distort decision making and distract practitioners from focussing on how far the services they provide effectively help children who receive them. Instead local agencies are to work in partnership to find ways of measuring this effectiveness and listening to the views of frontline staff and children and families and using this knowledge to drive improvement.
Local authorities will already have established fora for listening to particular groups, such as children in care, and we must build on this expertise to make service design truly consultative. Supervision and the development of senior social work practitioners (rather than managers) will be key to helping social workers have their voices heard. Some regional groups are discussing how they can develop complementary indicators so that they can benchmark their performance against each other.
This is part of the wider sector-led improvement effort that directors, lead members and chief executives are all involved in – to share experiences and learning and to challenge each other to do better for the children and young people we serve.
There was a challenge to government too, to implement the recommendations in their entirety and not cherry pick the ones that seemed easiest, or most convenient. This was accepted by ministers at the time, but the implementation of the recommendations is coming piecemeal.
We have already seen the new framework for inspection child protection services, with the promise of the development of a more multi-agency approach to inspection in 2013. The work of the Social Work Reform Board continues and the progress made there must be carried forward into further social work development projects.
But some crucial pieces of the puzzle are still missing. Until local authorities know the final form of ‘Working together to Safeguard Children’ and the ‘Framework for assessing need’, and can understand the extent of local discretion that we are to be allowed, we will be loathe to begin to restructure our services and rewrite strategies in earnest. We are keen to get on with what we know will be better than what we had before – and it will be better if planning is truly systemic, not incremental.
Now we need government to keep their side of the bargain.
Debbie Jones, executive director and young people’s service, Lambeth LBC