Safeguarding beyond rhetoric

The absence of powers has made local safeguarding more difficult to tackle, but where leaders have influenced and challenged effectively, success has been achieved, says Jim Gamble.

When it comes to safeguarding children and young people, the rhetoric of leadership is easy. Everyone knows what to say and what people want to hear. Unfortunately, I've heard this rhetoric far too often. The real test of leadership is never found in words, but in the deeds of those involved in highly complex safeguarding partnerships.

1. Safeguarding is no place for egos.
Being the independent chair of two Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs), I've been exposed to all that is good about leadership and had the pleasure of working alongside individuals who pride themselves on being a complementary component of a local partnership, playing their part in helping to make children safer. They have managed to lower their organisational flags and set aside their egos to reflect, learn and engage.

Some, however, have struggled to do this, displaying the dangerous characteristics of hubris. Others, under pressure from their own inspection regime or corporate priorities, have failed to embrace collaboration as a means for improvement. Some have interpreted any attempts at independent scrutiny as unwelcome bureaucracy. This is where leadership has been found wanting.

2. Leadership with no authority is difficult.
Balancing the many pressures and engaging "hard to reach" partners requires a range of leadership skills.

The architecture for LSCBs - which are to be abolished as part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 - imparted no power whatsoever to the chair, or to the LSCB as a whole. This was their fundamental Achilles heel - the expectation of leadership with no authority. Where success has been evident, this has been driven through a combination of culture, effective leadership and members accepting the importance of working in partnership and understanding collective accountability.

The absence of authority has simply made the task of LSCBs more difficult, with a disproportionate focus on their effectiveness correlating with the personal traits of the independent chair.

3. You need the ability to influence.
Leadership skills needed to achieve success in multi-agency safeguarding set-ups include the ability to influence, especially with organisations where safeguarding the young and vulnerable is one priority among many, rather than "the" priority. Being professionally curious and having the confidence to challenge are vital.

In my experience, if you haven't been told by one of your partners that you're "not an inspector" and have no statutory or operational authority, you have not been targeting your professional curiosity and respectful challenge in the right places or at the right things.

Equally important is the availability of expertise upon which senior leaders can draw. In the City of London and Hackney, for example, the investment in a senior professional adviser to the board - a qualified and highly skilled social worker - was pivotal to the LSCB being awarded the first outstanding judgment by Ofsted in England.

4. Look at the data and act on it.
In the context of everything I've learned in the last few years, I am truly worried about where multi-agency safeguarding is going.

While I have seen many examples of great work, all too often this has been down to the willingness of frontline staff to turn up and squeeze what they can from larger organisations who by virtue of financial pressures, competing demands or lack of senior management "buy-in" don't commit to collective responsibility.

One of the things I have emphasised during my tenure as an LSCB chair is the importance of looking at the data and following it up if it tells us something might be wrong. If an incident requires a serious case review, then that needs to happen regardless of any pressures or alternative views.

It is also important to accept that much of what Ofsted tells us is relevant and that getting the basics right is key.

5. Safeguarding must involve more than the "big three".
I don't believe you can leave the "big three" safeguarding partners - the local authority, police and health - to get on with it.

Lord Laming was right: there is a need for independent insight and oversight that is strong, underwritten by authority and complemented by influence - not driven by it. In the aftermath of the Wood review of LSCBs, there is a danger we default to the comfortable view that everyone does their best and that the "big three" already do all that needs to be done.

My advice to the Department for Education as it drafts regulations to define new "safeguarding arrangements" is not to dismantle the very fabric of partnership working. The structure of LSCBs have solid foundations. What we now need is a mechanism with authority that cannot be denied, a system that reflects true partnership and an unswerving focus on learning and improvement. Simply put, this issue is too important to be caught up in the political vandalism of reinventing the wheel. If it all goes wrong the most vulnerable will pay the price and we simply cannot let that happen.

  • Jim Gamble QPM, independent chair of City & Hackney LSCB and Bromley LSCB

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