15th December 2015

Members of the Safer Safeguarding Group are pleased to see that the Government believes it is a priority to improve child protection services in England. However we believe that what the Prime Minister called “landmark reforms”, announced on 14th December 2015, are unlikely to achieve the far-reaching outcomes that ministers say they desire.

At the heart of the package is a proposal that failing local authority children’s services will be taken over unless they rapidly recover from an Ofsted finding of ‘inadequate’. In the absence of marked improvement within six months, a commissioner will be appointed who can establish a trust, composed of other more successful local authorities and charities, to step-in and run the services. With one-in-four Ofsted child protection inspections resulting in a verdict of ‘inadequate’, there looks likely to be plenty of scope for commissioners stepping in and take-overs by trusts occurring. We have important reservations about any improvement process that is largely driven by the outcomes of Ofsted’s inspections which tend to concentrate on issues of process rather than the important fundamental issues of safe operation.

Nor do we believe that root and branch organisational change is a good way to develop safer services. New commissioners, trust boards and management structures may all sound like a ‘new broom’, but we believe that lasting safety advances come about through slow, incremental and continuous improvement in which front-line practitioners, in particular, are involved in understanding how service failings occur and how to prevent and mitigate them. Large-scale organisational change is highly disruptive. All too often once the dust has settled, unhelpful and unsafe working practices are found to have persisted unaddressed. Not only that but changes of this type do not come cheap. Large-scale reorganisations eat up scarce resources and seldom demonstrate value for money. We believe that scarce resources should be targeted on front-line services and on trying to understand where the weaknesses in organisational defences are to be found. Initiatives to eliminate those weaknesses and so increase safety and service quality should be the priority.

In short we believe that the Government has fallen into the trap of believing that lasting improvements can be brought about by heavy-handed top-down initiatives. In their ideal world Ofsted will point the finger and a new commissioner and a new trust will sweep in - like the proverbial cavalry - to reconfigure services. But in reality this type of approach is unrealistic. It will fail to engage those people who actually do the work, causing a more stressful working environment, and it will fail to identify the systematic and structural weaknesses that underlie poor performance and safety failings.

What is required is to create a learning culture in which the people who do the work feel free to explore how things go right and how things go wrong and to propose and research improvements; in other words, promoting a just reporting culture. In contrast blame cultures, in which bullying and threats impede thinking, are inherently unsafe because fear prevents people from challenging the hierarchy and initiating change. Only through the development of a just learning culture can an organisation achieve real progress towards making children safer.