Are there any specific references to school involvement in child protection?
Yes, in the context of being a useful early warning system for families developing problems. “While practitioners in social care and the health service are well positioned to respond to abuse that manifests itself in a crisis, those working in early years settings and schools see children on a daily basis and are often in a better position to identify chronic forms of maltreatment such as neglect and emotional abuse. The availability of social work expertise to help staff is important here.”
Will there be any changes in the recommended procedures school staff follow?
The review talks about the advice volume, Working Together to Safeguard Children, and how it is now 55 times longer than it was in 1974. “The review considers that Working Together should be revised to distinguish more clearly between rules and professional guidance. Some rules are essential to enable different professionals to work together constructively, by establishing the roles and responsibilities of the different agencies and organisations involved in child protection. In future, professional guidance should be best formulated as principles that professionals apply intelligently in particular cases.
“Subsequent revisions of Working Together should be made drawing on the advice of a group of experienced professionals from across the relevant disciplines.”
These revisions should include being “risk sensible” rather than risk averse, says the review. Revised versions of Working Together and The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families should distinguish the rules essential for effective working together from guidance underpinning professional judgement, and set out key principles underpinning the guidance.
Will the recommendations enable children and families to be helped earlier, before problems become entrenched?
The review is very keen on early help, in both senses of the term – helping younger children before damage is done, and in intervening early with families. “In developing local and shared arrangements to identify and record the early help needed by children, young people and families, it is the provision of an early help offer, where their needs do not meet the threshold for children’s social care services, which will continue to matter and make the most difference to them,” says the review. It recommends that the Government should place a duty on local authorities to ensure there are enough local early help services for children, young people and families. This would specify how the children would be identified, what social work expertise was available to professionals working with children, young people and families not being supported by children’s social care services, and to specify local training available to support professionals.”
So what help would there be for education professionals in identifying abuse and neglect?
“There are particular challenges involved in assessing whether children and young people are suffering, or are likely to suffer, significant harm. Statutory guidance tells those working with children and families to refer such children to children’s social care but making this decision is not straightforward. Abuse and neglect rarely present with a clear, unequivocal picture. It is often the totality of information, the overall pattern of the child’s story, that raises suspicions of possible abuse or neglect.
“A teacher may become concerned because a parent appears intoxicated when collecting a young child from school or because a child starts to behave in a problematic way in the classroom. The level of impact on the child from problematic parenting does not correlate with the severity of the adult’s problems. A child may be showing only low level signs of disturbance that appear to be linked to having a drug-abusing mother but dealing with the mother’s drug addiction is not a low level problem. It is important that assessments of a child’s circumstances include some assessment of the level of expertise needed to deal with the problems in a family that are contributing to poor outcomes for the child,” says the review.
“Designated and named leads working in early years, education and health have an important role to play in responding to the challenges involved in assessing whether children’s presenting needs means they are suffering, or are likely to suffer, significant harm. Working Together is clear about the significance of the roles that these named individuals have in recognising and responding to the indicators of possible abuse and neglect of a child and young person at an early stage. These roles facilitate effective engagement and dialogue between professionals and provide a single point of contact for local partners.”
This is one area where the review is calling for more procedure rather than less. “The review is recommending that there is a need for some degree of regulation when they work together at earlier stages in family problems. The duty to protect children and young people includes both a duty to detect and intervene when they are being abused and/or neglected and to offer support to families so that fewer children suffer neglect and abuse in the first place.”
Schools already report problems early, but often nothing happens. The review has noted this difficulty as well. “Schools are particularly well placed to notice children and young people in need of help and also to notice those where there are more serious concerns about their safety. Supporting children so that they get the very best education is only possible when they are safe and well cared for. Evidence to the review from Head Teachers was that they often have difficulty in accessing help for children and young people about whom they have concerns. High local thresholds may mean that social care services cannot help and yet there is still a need and possibly some distress for the child or young person about their circumstances. A lack of feedback from some children’s social care services means that teachers and Head Teachers are not able to learn how to select cases for referral more accurately.
“Further, the process for accessing other services may not be clear, if indeed the services exist. This further emphasises the need for the review’s recommendation to secure early help services. It will be important that services are available to support the needs of vulnerable children and young people who are not in need of protection but who clearly need help. The availability of social work expertise in these cases is important in helping school staff to think through best next steps and to take more urgent action if that is deemed necessary.”
The review praises the development in many areas of multi-agency teams which respond to referrals and decide what type of help, if any, is needed.
Has the review recommended any changes to the Common Assessment Framework form?
“There is conflicting evidence on whether the form is contributing to improved practice or not. In line with other recommendations on reducing prescription about how professionals carry out their duties, the review considers that local areas should have the flexibility to make local decisions on revising the form to suit local needs. In doing so, they should work closely with other professionals involved with children and families and agree both the evidence and theoretical basis for their offer of early help…
Arrangements should also make it clear whether a child or their parents have consented to sharing personal and sensitive information with other services and always take account of the child or young persons’ perceptions of their circumstances and their wishes and feelings in line with their evolving capacities.”
How would schools be involved in an Ofsted inspection of child protection?
Little detail is available. The recommendation says: “The inspection framework should examine the effectiveness of the contributions of all local services, including health, education, police, probation and the justice system to the protection of children.” It says inspections should generally be unannounced but there should also be “deep dive” inspections, perhaps triggered by the Secretary of State.
What does the Review say about risk?
“Those involved in child protection must be ‘risk sensible’. There is no option of being risk averse since there is no absolutely safe option. In reality, risk averse practice usually entails displacing the risk onto someone else. Even if every child who was considered or suspected to be suffering harm was removed from their
birth family, that would only incur different risks.”
What would local authorities do differently in child protection?
“Local authorities must start to take a stronger lead in ensuring that theirs is both a listening and a learning system. There must be a stronger commitment by all levels of local administration to understand how senior management decisions impact on frontline social work.
“For this reason, the review is recommending that local authorities should designate a Principal Child and Family Social Worker. This role would take responsibility for relating the views of social workers to all levels of management, whose decisions affect the work of frontline social workers through Directors of Children’s Services, Chief Executives, Lead Members, Council Leaders, and the Chief Social Worker.”
The review expresses some anxiety about changes being made in local authority structures, and recommends that they give “due
consideration to protecting the discrete roles and responsibilities of a Director of Children’s Services and Lead Member for Children’s Services before allocating any additional functions to individuals occupying such roles, asking whether alternative approaches allow sufficient focus and attention to be paid to the nation’s most vulnerable children.”
What about the way in which social workers work?
The review is very sympathetic to the difficulties of social workers’ jobs, and in particular how the process has taken over at the expense of spending time understanding the family’s problems. “Social workers’ priorities are, in large part,
not a personal choice but set by the organisation in which they work. Evidence submitted to this review and to Lord Laming’s 2009 progress report shows the extent to which frontline workers prioritise the bureaucratic aspects of their work and complying with performance indicators. This leaves time to spend with children and young people and develop good quality relationships low on the list and, consequently, frequently omitted,” says the review.
Another section says: “…Any revised career pathway will need to consider what levels of responsibility should be given to each role within the organisation. In a possible career trajectory, newly qualified social workers, for example, will need a lot of support and guidance, and will need to be exposed to the full range of tasks in order to develop. However, as a practitioner becomes more skilled, opportunities to occupy more senior roles with financial reward appropriately aligned to increasing levels of responsibility, could be provided. Whilst this naturally extends to decision making and complexity of case, thought should also be given to providing opportunities for senior practitioners to teach and coach more junior staff.”
The review suggests changes in working practice. “At present, a frontline social worker carries a caseload (often very heavy) with limited access to supervision, which is narrowly focused on the performance management of cases.
“The review considers that the range of available knowledge and skills that could contribute to meeting the varied needs of children and families makes this workload unmanageable. It is more appropriate to conceive of the frontline worker as akin to a junior doctor who has access to many more senior doctors with specific areas of expertise to help in the management of any one case.
“The current career structure should be replaced with one that allows more opportunity for people to stay in practice while gaining seniority within the organisation. It considers that the development of individual expertise and of the profession’s knowledge base has been seriously hampered by a career pattern requiring people to leave practice in order to get promoted. It also recommends that each local authority should have a designated Principal Child and Family Social Worker who is still actively involved in practice and who would help in the development of practice expertise in that authority.”
What would the Chief Social Worker do?
“A Chief Social Worker would be the final piece in the jigsaw to enable all parts of the system to learn, because central Government has its own part to play in this process – principally via statute, regulation and inspection. Government must develop the means to understand how its policies and procedures affect both practice at the front line and the experience of children, families and adults. A Chief Social Worker would also cast a light on the practice of social work in order that the daily challenges facing social workers are clear to Government as well as raising the status of social work. Having a senior social work position in Government would send out a strong message that this work is valued and important. For these reasons, this review does consider the role of a Chief Social Worker to be a valuable one.
“It would make good sense for this role to report jointly to the Secretaries of State for Health and Education.”
How is the current system working?
“The evidence that children and young people have given to the review vindicates the Government’s decision, within weeks of the formation of the Coalition, to express concern that the child protection system is not working as well as it should.
“They have said that, above all, they want a trusting and stable relationship with an adult who provides them with help and information when they need it. Yet, for too many, this is not achieved. Ofsted reported recently that, ‘the child was not seen frequently enough by the professionals involved, or was not asked about their views and feelings’. The Children’s Rights Director reports that too many children become looked after without their opinions having been sought. The Children’s Commissioner has found that there is a tendency to focus on the needs of parents with insufficient attention given to the needs and concerns of the child.”
What did children say about the system?
“They voiced the importance of being heard separately from their parents and being listened to. They expressed how confusing they had found the process of being helped, which, in their eyes, was far from transparent. They made a plea for better information, honesty, and emotional support throughout the process. Elements of frontline practice that children and young people particularly valued were: access to consistent help from the same worker; respectful treatment; and services which do not get withdrawn as soon as the crisis is passed. They also spoke very highly of the support provided by voluntary sector advocacy services which they describe as critical in helping them to disclose abuse and harm.”