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Mark Gurrey: We must tackle our amnesia in children’s services

Mark Gurrey
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The government has recently awarded the contract to set up the first ‘What Works Centre’ for children’s social work.

Funded by the Department for Education and due to be fully independent by 2020, it is a centre designed to “foster evidence-informed practice in England”. It is being developed in partnership led by Nesta and the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

It will be of crucial importance that the centre is true to its title. Building on what works has proved to be a significant challenge in children’s social work and I think there are three root causes.

First, we suffer professional amnesia. Each generation starts again when thinking about how to best tackle neglect or child sexual abuse, or how to respond to children living with domestic abuse or all the other myriad activity that is the core business of children’s social workers. It would be like us going to the GPs and them needing to reinvent almost from scratch how to treat our ailments without any reference to what they have learnt over the years.

Second, councils are always working on different and creative ways of delivering services, many of which are genuinely successful. They tend to remain in the places that developed them, however; they might get presented at conferences, where the response is too often, “looks very good but of course it would never work here”. The DfE innovation fund has so far poured millions into a small number of authorities to enable them to test out different ways of working. It will be important that the success or otherwise of those various projects are disseminated and, more importantly, the most successful ones written into future statutory guidance as the way we all do things. If we don’t do this, all that will have happened is that a small group of children and families in one area will have benefitted from something not being made available to others. Again, it is unthinkable that treatments successfully pioneered in one hospital don’t, after proper research and evaluation, become the norm across the country.

Third, the all-pervading learning from serious case reviews. By definition, learning from reviews is learning from what went wrong, from inter-agency failings of some sort or from individual mistakes. Of course, it is important to review these cases; there have been and will continue to be valuable lessons therein. However, typically and historically, they have led to recommendations that have focused on training and procedural changes. Whilst both might be important, they are not and never will be game-changing. An equally forensic examination of cases that have gone well will, I suggest, identify different types of learning with a focus much more on values and behaviours, on communication and on the successful application of knowledge and skills. Applying these sorts of lessons to future practice will have much greater impact on doing what works.

Mark Gurrey is currently chair of two local safeguarding children boards and an improvement board. He writes in a personal capacity

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