Is child safeguarding compromised or boosted by freedoms from laws?

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The struggles of two councils given freedoms from safeguarding duties has boosted opposition to the government's exemption clause plans. But social work leaders are split on whether freedoms increase safeguarding risks.

Amid fierce debate over the merits of government plans to allow local authorities to apply for exemptions from social care legislation, it emerged earlier this month that two councils granted freedoms from statutory guidance in recent years subsequently had their children's services rated "inadequate" by Ofsted.

Temporary suspensions from statutory Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance were granted to selected councils by then Education Secretary Michael Gove following recommendations in Professor Eileen Munro's 2011 review of the child protection system, which concluded that bureaucracy was preventing social workers from doing their jobs (see below).

In the period since the freedoms were granted, it has been a mixed picture for the councils involved - standards improved at four, stayed the same at six and worsened at two (see box).

Although it represents a different initiative to the more wide-ranging powers to exempt councils from social care legislation that the government is pursuing, campaigners opposed to the plans say the inadequate ratings for Knowsley Council and Wandsworth Council - both of which had previously been rated as "good" - reinforce their arguments.

Knowsley Council was granted dispensation from adhering to the statutory 45 working day time limit for assessments and a 15 working day time limit between a strategy discussion and the initial child protection conference taking place.

Meanwhile, Wandsworth Council was granted dispensation from adhering to the 45 working day time limit for assessments taking place and, if a child is subject of a child protection plan, the 10 working day time limit between the initial child protection conference and the core group discussion.

The Department for Education insists that the freedoms from statutory timescales were not the reason for the poor inspection results, and that it withdrew them when it became clear services were deteriorating. However, the situation raises questions about the potential for children being placed at risk in areas granted freedoms and the circumstances in which they should be granted.

Service quality deterioration

Colin Green, former director of children's services (DCS) in Coventry and now working as a consultant, says there is "potential" for service quality deteriorating while freedoms are in place.

In relation to child protection timescales of the kind from which Knowsley and Wandsworth were exempted, he points out that drift or delay can result in children being placed at risk.

"You don't want delays with assessments and child protection meetings - you should be getting on with it," he says.

"It should be a matter that has some urgency about it, otherwise it gives people a very mixed message about how important it is.

"In relation to the freedoms Knowsley and Wandsworth were granted, Ofsted does not expect them to meet those targets 100 per cent of the time anyway - they would expect them to get in the high 80s or low 90s.

"There are good reasons for that, to avoid delay and being seen to get on with something. I don't see how that freedom was going to help them do their job better or serve children better."

Green says he believes the same goes for proposed exemptions from social care legislation.

"I haven't really heard anything about what the plans are that are really going to make a difference to children," he says. "Two of the ideas - changing the role of independent reviewing officers and possibly children's reviews - are fraught with difficulty.

"The rules and structure we have provide a very good and secure framework when used to protect children. If you weaken that in some way, particularly when practitioners don't understand the purpose behind those safeguards, it is a bit of a slippery slope.

"This freedom is a sideshow from the main issue that is about quality of practice and people's ability to do the job - both of which are closely linked to caseload size and resources. This is bureaucratic tinkering rather than dealing with the fundamentals, which are the demands on the system, its capacity and numbers of practitioners."

The merits of exemptions

But some social work academics say there is a need to find alternatives to existing rigid timescales and targets to simplify an overly complex system (see expert view).

Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), also sees merit in granting exemptions.

While he admits that some theoretical examples given so far give cause for worry, he says others, such as allowing short periods of respite foster care for older children struggling in the home environment without having to take them into care, could offer benefits to children and councils.

According to Hill, the ADCS's main concern is that all councils should be able to apply for exemptions from social care legislation, arguing that the concept of risk is inherent to children's social work.

"While we understand why you need to start there, if you have 20 other authorities that are inadequate, it is probably those that need to do things more differently," Hill explains.

"I'm slightly worried we are falling into a world where good and better authorities will get freedoms to innovate. It might be just as useful for inadequate or ‘requires improvement' councils. If it is only for good or outstanding authorities, it is a recipe for those councils to get much better and it becoming a never-ending cycle.

"If it is a good idea, within proper boundaries, everybody should have the chance to try it. If you do something that is new or different there is a chance there is going to be risk. But social work is about risk every day, and it is about managing that risk."

He cites his own example of Essex, which was a struggling authority when he joined as DCS in 2010, but went on to receive a good rating in March 2014. "I was trying to get the basics right," he says.

"If you are in trouble, you have to walk before you run, but we did do some stuff that was quite ‘out there'. We reduced the number of children in care by 600. We did more adoption, pushed heavily for kinship care, and improved working with children and their families to stop the situation breaking down. We chose which families to do that with and tried to be sensible about it.

"If you become risk-averse and don't try anything, you can be stuck in a vicious circle."

But what happens if a local authority ends up inadvertently placing children at risk? The DfE seemingly accepts the importance of monitoring performance in councils once they are given freedoms.

In the case of Wandsworth, it appears that the DfE was aware of service deterioration - the freedoms were removed in January 2015, 10 months before inspectors visited the local authority and found services to be inadequate.

The situation with Knowsley is less clear. The DfE says that freedoms remained in place until 2014, without giving a specific month. Children's services at the authority were rated inadequate following an inspection conducted in April 2014.

Early warning system

The DfE is currently developing an early warning system to identify local authorities where standards in child protection are slipping after identifying a link between levels of staff turnover and agency rates in children's services departments and Ofsted child protection judgments. But is the DfE best placed to do this?

Andy Elvin, chief executive of The Adolescent and Children's Trust, says that if the legislation goes through, robust oversight of performance in councils where they are granted will be vital.

He says this would ideally involve practice experts such as DCSs and principal social workers, and advocates a health check on a council at the time they apply for a freedom, rather than relying on the most recent Ofsted inspection.

"If an authority is on its way from inadequate to outstanding, it could have an excellent team that will do well with the exemption," he says. "But you may have a good authority that is coasting after getting a good rating 18 months ago and has had some staff departures, and giving an exemption to them when they are heading downwards and may not use it well.

"You want to know that the frontline team is well supervised, well led and is going to use any exemption safely. The key is having any exemptions overseen by staff with the necessary skills to dynamically monitor impact and step in if problems arise."

Expert view: ‘Poor Ofsted rating does not necessarily reflect a failure of freedoms'

By Sue White, professor of social work, Sheffield University; and Brigid Featherstone, professor of social work, Huddersfield University

There has been much controversy about the "innovation" clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill. We are opposed to these clauses, but are aware this may seem contradictory, or even contrary.

After all, we supported the Munro Review recommendations about reducing bureaucracy in children's services, with which these clauses are routinely rhetorically associated.

For over a decade, there have been relentless top-down attempts to break down complex practices into simplified parts, which are then purportedly measured. This has led to organisations of baffling structural complexity, which have the effect of complicating the work, creating multiple hand-off points and sign-offs. This was the context in which the Munro Review emerged and made its recommendations about reducing targets in relation to timescales for assessments, for example, which have been trialled in various local authorities.

Recently, negative Ofsted judgments in some of the authorities granted exemptions have attracted attention and added fuel to the concerns of many opponents of the innovation clauses in the current bill. We would urge caution, however, about seeing this as the main problem, not least because we consider that judgments by Ofsted need to be questioned most rigorously and should not be taken at face value. The Ofsted regime is, and has been, one of the biggest distractions in the system, sapping organisational energy, increasing fear and blame, and often stifling creative practice developments because of its adherence to a risk-averse regime. If there is one part of the system in need of reform, it is Ofsted.

The alternative to timescales and targets is a system simplified and designed to support complex jobs and decisions. This is required for all of children's services, not a selected few. This has not happened with the bill. There has been a woeful absence of preparation and consultation prior to its publication and, despite carefully crafted and evidenced objections across the sector and in the House of Lords, the government has pressed ahead with a lack of concern, it would appear, about carrying the sector with it.

Removing the straitjacket of crude performance proxies is one thing; jettisoning the apparatus for oversight and accountability for the state's actions is another. It is of concern, for example, that adoption and fostering panels seem to be being constructed as unnecessary bureaucracy.

If the bill is passed, it may be that those granted exemptions in the first tranche will use these to strip away unhelpful processes, but there is also a risk that a range of other, most undesirable, changes will ensue. The actions of the state need checks and balances of a robust kind to protect rights and to sustain freedoms.

COUNCILS GRANTED EXEMPTIONS

Twelve local authorities were granted exemptions from statutory Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance. They were:

  • Brent - rated Adequate in Oct 2012; Requires Improvement in Nov 2015
  • Hackney - Good, Jul 2012; Good, Sep 2016
  • Hammersmith - Good, Jul 2011; Good, Mar 2016
  • Hartlepool - Good, Jun 2010; Good, Feb 2014
  • Kensington & Chelsea - Good May 2012; Outstanding, Mar 2016
  • Knowsley - Good, Mar 2010; Inadequate, Jul 2014
  • Leeds - Inadequate, Jan 2010; Good, Mar 2015
  • Suffolk - Adequate, July 2013; Good, Feb 2016
  • Wandsworth - Good, May 2012; Inadequate, Feb 2016
  • Westminster - Good, Sep 2011; Outstanding, Mar 2016
  • West Sussex - Adequate, Feb 2013; Requires Improvement, Jan 2016
  • Wokingham - Adequate, Nov 2012; Requires Improvement, Jan 2016

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