Ofsted’s October 2014 report on the outcomes of the first 33 inspections under their new framework showed that over two thirds of children’s services where either “inadequate” or “require improvement”. Offering a pragmatic and achievable approach to assisting services to build their capacity to meet public, political and professional expectations in his book The Common-Sense Guide to the Safeguarding of Children, author Terry McCarthy outlines his three-step approach to improving the safeguarding of children.
Social workers are expected to enable fundamental and sustained change with parents and carers who often have long-term and entrenched issues relating to their capability, behaviour and life choices. These most commonly concern alcohol and drug use, violence, criminal activity, learning disability, mental health problems and serious emotional difficulties. Often more than one of these elements needs to be addressed to ensure the safety and welfare of children. The challenge is made even more difficult by families often being unwelcoming or fearful of agencies’ involvement, leading to them being evasive or hostile.
Whilst most social workers are highly committed, these complexities, demands and expectations take their toll with many being overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. This can lead to low morale, uncertainty and poor confidence. The impact on the continuity and long term stability of services is often felt through high staff turnover, sickness and shortened careers. For those who do remain in practice the complexities can cause misjudgements, tunnel vision, lack of focus and ineffective practice with practitioners feeling unable to challenge situations or creatively engage with families. This can also lead to process driven practice which meets procedure and policy requirements, committing considerable energy and resources without necessarily leading to significant benefit to children.
The Three Step approach considers how safeguarding agencies, particularly children’s services, can work within available resources to make a real difference. This does not require a major ground shift but rather can be achieved through the accumulative effect of a series of small, easily implemented measures.
Step one: Establish a culture which enables and leads
This culture should identify how organisational values, attitudes and behaviours are needed to model good parenting. This includes having healthy relationships, good communication, clarity of purpose, conflict resolution, constructive use of authority and creative approaches. It is argued that the “managerial” approach, which focuses on procedure, giving instruction and monitoring compliance, is limited and unlikely to adequately inspire, support and lead practitioners through the highly complex challenge of identifying and address the mistreatment to children.
Step two: Develop a stable, skilled and confident workforce
This presumes that most social workers are reasonably clear about what should be done and why this is required to safeguard children, however often struggle with how they can bring about the required outcomes. Effective practice requires practitioners to be supported to develop focus, understand the complexities and address anxiety which can overwhelm them. The practitioner skills outlined in the book are an expansion of the Performance Capability Framework and it is argued that a blend of supervision, coaching, consultation and case auditing can create a learning environment where best practice is likely to flourish.
Step three: Enable families to change.
This sets out thirteen aspects of effective work with families to ensure that risks to children and the fundamental reasons for these are clearly understood, leading to effective planning which focuses on addressing solutions and ensuring real progress within reasonable timescales. This requires honest, effective and direct relationships with families and partner agencies including clarity about how meetings and involvement with the family and professionals ensure that key aspects of the plan are progressed.
Terry McCarthy is a qualified social worker with over 30 years’ experience in children’s services. Read more about The Common-Sense Guide to Improving the Safeguarding of Children here.