Interview: Andy Roberts, director of children's services, Surrey County Council

Lauren Higgs
Friday, June 11, 2010

The Channel 4 Dispatches programme, Undercover Social Worker, filmed an inexperienced family support worker being given responsibility for child protection cases in Surrey that should have been allocated to a fully qualified social worker.

Andy Roberts, director of the children's services department exposed in the programme, claims his council has improved vastly since the undercover filming, but is warning that Ofsted does too little to help troubled child protection teams to improve.

"Someone coming in and telling me that something doesn't work isn't always what I need because I know that," he explains. "The question is how do I move it on in a way that is safe, sustainable and we can afford? What we sometimes need is support in that process."

Roberts admits the failings exposed in the programme came as no surprise, but claims Surrey County Council has improved vastly since the undercover filming took place last autumn. "That office doesn't exist in that form now," he says. "Caseloads are high, people are working hard, but I think the system is safer. Certainly the practices and some of the poor management and supervision that was shown in that programme have been addressed. I don't claim we're perfect, but if that journalist turned up now he would notice a significant improvement."

Recruitment and retention is one area that has picked up. "We've got our vacancy rate down to three per cent if you just look at empty seats, or eight per cent, if you include locum and agency staff," Roberts explains. "When I took over two years ago the vacancy rates were in the low 20 per cents. My concern is that programmes like this undermine what we're doing. We're going to have to reassure young social workers and family support workers that Surrey is a good place to work."

Roberts is also concerned that the programme could lead to the identification of some vulnerable children and families. "Some of the cases shown were dealing with issues around domestic violence for example and we need to ensure that Dispatches' willingness to film people without their permission doesn't create any risk," he says.

Despite this, he is glad the programme highlighted issues affecting social workers across the country. "Nationally there has been an enormous increase in the volume of young people in the care system and that is putting staff under a lot of pressure," Roberts explains. "There are also issues still to be addressed around bureaucracy. Keeping records and ensuring the quality of work is really important, but we've got to ensure there's enough time spent with children and young people. The programme demonstrated that balance is still not right."

Roberts believes the work of the Social Work Taskforce is making a difference, but wants to see it accelerate. "We are seeing the national programme of change is starting to impact in terms of recruitment and training, but it is slow," he says.

He admits that government cuts will make it hard for children's services teams but says safeguarding will be protected as far as possible. "I can't imagine there is a council in the country that doesn't want to prioritise its resources on social care and children's services."

The new government is yet to set out its stall for social care, but there is at least one policy that has Roberts worried. He argues that publishing serious case reviews in full is the wrong move. "I've had to deal with a small number of serious cases but I think what has helped the learning from those cases is the understanding that the review would be confidential," he says. "That has encouraged people to enter into the reviews with a spirit of openness. If we publish the [full] serious case reviews there is a real danger that the learning from them will be much diminished."

On the academic Eileen Munro's forthcoming government review into cutting bureaucracy in social work, the jury is out. "Anything we do to reduce bureaucracy will be helpful," he says. "But there is a danger that we do review after review and what we really need is fairly quick change."


BACKGROUND: SPOTLIGHT ON SURREY

  • Dispatches: Undercover Social Worker followed an undercover reporter working as an inexperienced family support worker in Surrey County Council's social services department
  • During three months of filming, the reporter found a lack of resources, inadequate staff support and training, high workloads, low morale and overwhelming bureaucracy
  • Andy Roberts, who became director of children's services at Surrey in 2008, says since filming stopped last autumn things have improved but that there is still work to do to deal with the increasing pressure facing social workers.

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