Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640-659)


17 DECEMBER 2008

  Q640  Mr Stuart: So at best it distorts their behaviour, and at worst it tempts them to distort the data?

  Colin Green: It certainly changes behaviour, because we will respond to how we are managed and performance-managed.

  Q641  Mr Stuart: Last week, to my astonishment, the chief inspector said when I questioned her that she did not think that there was too much bureaucracy. Other Committee members may remember, but from last week's evidence they had not found that there was, chronically, too much bureaucracy suffered by front-line social workers. Is it the evidence of the entire panel here today that that is not the case?

  Colin Green: Henrietta and I are not entirely as one. Judith has looked at a lot of files.

  Professor Masson: I have looked at court files, which is rather a different thing. In the dim and distant past, I looked at social work files. My experience generally, and this perhaps does not relate to the most recent practice, is that a lot of information is collected but, having been collected, not very much information is read later on. So if the social worker changes, the new social worker does not have time to read the file. All the information has been collected and it may be easily accessible, but the person needs to be given the space to access it. I do not think that the Local Authorities are necessarily very good at doing that.

  Dr Proops: My contribution—again, from the practitioner's perspective—is that we cannot analyse or manage these complex cases without a detailed chronology. All of us have recognised that. It takes time to develop that chronology, and perhaps rather too often the chronology is not available at the time when the multidisciplinary team needs it. So if that is an indication of either how the information is collected or how it is extracted, from a practitioner perspective, that is something that I am aware of.

  Q642  Chairman: So if a baby is taken into A and E and the staff access the data, will the system provide all his, or her, medical records?

  Dr Proops: There are ways of getting hold of health data relatively quickly. To integrate that with other data from social care—

  Chairman: I am only talking about healthcare because that came up in the Haringey case.

  Dr Proops: Children have more than one set of notes. They will have records held within primary care from their GP. If they touch any hospital, another set of notes will be opened. They will also have a community set of records. At the very least, they will have three sets of notes. Some places will have systems whereby you can access those three sets of notes relatively rapidly, but most do not. We do not do particularly well in having a good overall picture of a child's health and welfare, because the information is in a number of different places. We will fall short with the note system, as our social care colleagues will sometimes do.

  Q643  Mr Heppell: I am worried about this. It seems to be that one person's bureaucracy might be somebody else's essential information. It seems that we are talking about data being recorded and a system. If the tick boxes are wrong because they do not give enough clarity, that suggests to me that the case notes that the social worker would have to take would have to be more extensive than the tick boxes, which would mean more time spent recording the information than would actually happen. Has the so-called bureaucracy not evolved because somebody has realised that there is a failing in the system and said that in future, people should record this, or, in future people should make sure that they have this information? That is what this system seems to be. It seems a bit nonsensical to say, "We have devised a system of creating and collecting data," and then write it off. I can understand it from a social worker's point of view, because it gives them boundaries and it is prescriptive, but has experience not shown us that this sort of system is necessary?

  Colin Green: I think that is the correct analysis. The history of this going back many years is that some of the files were incomprehensible and there was not an adequate assessment or adequate information-gathering. The issue is about the balance of that. If we had a better-trained work force they could use the tools better and there would be more confidence that they could judge which bits to do in depth and which bits to tick the box for. That is part of the issue. People sometimes look at a long form and think, "Have I got to fill in every bit of this?". If that is the message they think they have from their manager, that is probably what they will do. It may do nothing for the child. To some extent, the tools have become very complex in part to compensate for when the practitioners do not have a clear enough practice model of how they do the job as a result of their training and other developments.

  Q644  Chairman: Colin, can I push you on this? The detail, the complexity of this, comes post-Climbié.

  Colin Green: No. This comes well before Climbié. The assessment framework was launched in 2000; the looked-after children records were launched in the mid-1990s. It was those coming together that was the integrated children's system. It is a practice system. It is a description, if you like, of how the work should be done.

  Q645  Chairman: Did the Climbié tragedy have an effect on the way in which records were taken?

  Colin Green: I think it probably added further to the sense of a requirement to keep very comprehensive records. We still have not quite got this right in terms of balancing how records are kept and how they are used. It is not the keeping—it is the use of them.

  Q646  Chairman: That is what I want to nail down before you go. You have just alluded to the training and the people who use it. What is coming out time and again is the quality of the training of the social workers who make this whole thing happen. That is not to criticise them, but the training, you think, could be better.

  Colin Green: We have many super staff. However, they need to do this very sophisticated and complex work, understand it and present it well in court, give confidence to the judiciary in their evidence, and give confidence to parents and children as well. We do need very substantial investment in training and development. We also need to have enough people. Again, you picked up on this point. I do not think you can run a good service with substantial numbers of agency staff. You need your own staff. That point was made last week.

  Q647  Mrs Hodgson: I am going to come on to training and experience now. The Baby P serious case review did not explicitly blame the death of Baby P on the shortage or the high turnover of staff. However, the British Association of Social Workers put out a press release saying that we should not look for scapegoats, but at the high turnover of staff in child protection social work, excessively high case loads, over-reliance on agency workers, as Colin just mentioned, and an absence of supervision of often inexperienced or non-permanent workers. Do you feel that the vacancy rate and the high turnover have an impact on work with children at risk? What are the actual and ideal case loads for a social worker? Is the answer simply to recruit more social workers?

  Henrietta Heawood: The ideal case load is a difficult issue. We cannot say what is ideal. There was some research years ago that said a social worker could manage seven families at any one time—that was as much as they could cope with. There are case loads now of 25 to 30 children, which may be fewer than 25 to 30 families, but it is still quite a lot. Heavy case loads are being reported to us across the country. Often, heavy case loads are held by experienced workers, because they are the ones the managers will go to for help with a case—here is someone who can do it—so the good workers get burdened more and more. We are also aware of Local Authorities being reliant on agency staff. This is a complicated matter. In the Baby P case, a number of agency staff were noted as working in Haringey at the time. Agency staff can be good social workers. People choose to work in that way and sign up to an agency, because they get more money per hour and can stop work when they do not like it. However, they are less likely to have a commitment to the particular Local Authority that they are with, so the continuity may go. Being an agency worker does not mean that someone is a bad social worker, but it might mean that in that department there is less loyalty and commitment to overall aims and objectives. For children, continuity is terribly important.

  Q648  Mrs Hodgson: So seven families is ideal?

  Henrietta Heawood: That is from ages ago—it was a bit of research stating that that was what people could really cope with. That seems a very small case load from my experience.

  Q649  Mrs Hodgson: Do social workers constantly complain about having too heavy a case load?

  Henrietta Heawood: It varies. Some Local Authorities are better than others and help their staff to have smaller and protected case loads. However, across the country, we are hearing of high case loads and of teams that struggle to recruit and retain experienced social workers who can help mentor and teach newcomers to the profession. That is what we need: social work and child care cannot all be taught during the initial social work qualifying course. It cannot all be learned then, so to some extent, it must be learned on the job. It is an apprenticeship, and learning on the job means that there must be experienced, good supervisors, mentors and other members of the team around to help people. If those people are not there and the whole team is made up of new recruits, there is a problem.

  Q650  Mrs Hodgson: You touched on the issue of retention. I was going to come on to that later, but I will mention it now. We need professional development for staff and some encouragement for them to stay in the profession. Following cases such as that of Baby P, I imagine that fewer people will want to go into social work, and that those in social work may decide to move on and do other things. Last week, the DCSF published the 2020 children and young people's work force strategy. I have it here. One of the things it notes that social workers said, is that initial social work training programmes need to be far better and people want "better access to ongoing professional development". The Government hope to do what it says here, "attracting and retaining the brightest and best in social work", but I imagine that it is a hard time to do so.

  Henrietta Heawood: That is absolutely right. The association would like some commitment from the Department to support social workers—I do not know whether you can relay our feelings on that to it. Perhaps the press section of the Department could promote positively the good work that social workers do. It is not just bad news all the time: thousands of social workers do a really hard job, day in, day out, to make the lives of children better—that is their aim. But they would like some better press, if you like, not these dreadful campaigns in The Sun and similar newspapers. It is really distressing to get that coverage when you have worked hard. Perhaps the Department could run a campaign to help.

  Q651  Chairman: Would Judith come in on this question? We heard evidence from a deputy director for social work in Hackney—this was before the Baby P case—who said that he would not employ a British-trained social worker; he recruited them all from overseas. Is social work training that bad?

  Professor Masson: No, I do not think that social work training is that bad, but there are two problems. If we recruit overseas social workers, they are used to working in a different system and we need to put a lot of resources into training them in the British system—both the social care system and the legal system. In doing legal research, I have come across people who I am sure are excellent social workers and very highly qualified in other jurisdictions, but who have had perhaps a morning or one day of training on the Children Act, and that is all they know. They are not in a good position to work with our complex legal system and the high demands of our courts. As for training in social work in the UK, universities have a problem recruiting good students. What was done to the social work training system and the resources taken out of it in the 1980s and 1990s—the idea was that all we needed were streetwise grannies—proved a disaster for the production of social workers. We do not have students at masters level coming through. In the university system, I teach a little on social work courses, but I do not get heavily involved in the issue of how much theory and which theories are taught—I focus on legal issues. However, there is a big issue around student placements. Students all do placements on social work training courses. In the 1970s and 1980s there used to be student units in all statutory agencies, and students did at least one placement in a statutory agency. They would spend six months of a two-year course with what is now the children's social care department. It is very difficult for students to get those placements now, so they do placements in non-statutory agencies—working in nurseries, with lawyers in private practice or something like that—as those are the only placements they can get. They therefore come out without the heavily supervised student practice in a statutory agency that they would have had on good social work courses in the 1970s and early 1980s. We do not have a proper apprenticeship system of combined training and education, and our social work courses are generally much shorter. We are taking in undergraduates and making them social workers in three years, whereas countries such as South Africa and Australia are taking students and giving them two-year masters courses after they have done general a social care, sociology or other relevant first degree. We are not doing that.

  Henrietta Heawood: I can certainly add a bit on the shortage of placements. It is a concern for the British Association of Social Workers and I do not know why it is like that. I do not know why Local Authority children's services and social care are not providing the placements that are needed. Somebody must know why, but it is an issue. I have been around for years, so I have seen a lot of changes in social workers coming into the profession. When I went into the profession as a young graduate a long time ago, it was a career choice for lots of people. It was a good, solid, respectable career choice. I do not see that now particularly, so the need to attract bright graduate students is there. That is to do with the conditions of work for social workers, the public perception and the low status that they are given. I think that Ed Balls has talked about trying to improve the status of social workers, as has been done for teachers. I have been listening to programmes on the radio about a scheme for prison governors—I do not know whether you have heard it—that recruits bright graduates into the prison governor system, and gives them a lot of help and fast tracking. Something like that would perhaps help. It is the status of the profession that is the problem.

  Q652  Mrs Hodgson: That is exactly the point that I was going to come on to. We talk in the DCSF about teaching the profession at masters level, and I think that that was what Judith was alluding to as well. The status of social workers should be raised. Something that the Committee looked at when we were in Denmark was the issue of pedagogues. In Denmark, some child care workers who work in the profession are trained as pedagogues with three-year degree-level qualifications. They are not social workers; they are just below the level of social worker, if my memory serves me right. We do not have that staff level. We have the same people doing the same jobs—I imagine that we do—but they do not have that level of training. I would imagine that if we did, and if social work became more of a masters-level profession, the whole work force would be upskilled, but would their status improve?

  Henrietta Heawood: There are problems for Local Authorities in the staffing of their departments, and in areas where they have found that difficult they have a kind of "grow your own" system in which they sponsor family support workers and unqualified social workers to go through university programmes so that they end up with the diploma in social work. In some areas that is quite successful, but it is quite different from what we are talking about—bright graduates doing MAs.

Q653 Mr Heppell: On the threshold for taking children into care under section 31, about 90% of proceedings are successful. In one respect, that is high, but in another respect, when it is about taking a kid into care, why have we got even a 10% failure rate, and what would be the reasons for refusal? I think that you have done some research on this, Judith, which shows that Local Authorities are responsible and do not bring cases that would be considered frivolous.

  Professor Masson: There is a small proportion of cases where there is substantial improvement in the parents' care of the children—a very small proportion of cases—so that an order is no longer necessary. There is another small group of cases in which relatives are identified—perhaps a father who has been out of the child's life for 10 years—or come forward and end up with the care of the child, and no order is required. Those are really the two things. There may be a relative placement where an order is not required. In our study, we looked at 386 cases; 21 cases were withdrawn, and they were mostly improvement cases. There was one in which the Local Authority failed to prove its case—I think that was partly about how the case was presented. As a lawyer, I would say that, had that case been presented to another judge, an order would have been granted, as there were various technical difficulties. It was less than 10% in our study, which was a random sample—more like 7%—and only one of those cases was a failed case. Local Authorities go through rigorous procedures in determining whether proceedings should be brought. It is not just the issue of the section 31 threshold criteria, but the issue of what the care plan is and whether intervention is necessary and proportionate.

  Q654  Mr Heppell: I am trying to combine my questions, because we are nearly out of time. In the Haringey case, nine days before the child's death, the advice from the lawyers was that there was not sufficient to get past the threshold to go for care. What sort of advice or guidance do people receive as to what the threshold should be? Can I just tie that in with a couple of things? There is a lot of inconsistency between authorities, so do you think that any of that is to do with resources? Do people have different policies in different areas because of how much they want to spend? I know that that is a bit of a muddled question.

  Professor Masson: Can I take it from the back? One of the major differences between Local Authorities is how much access to lawyers they have. If they have only one lawyer in-house and great limitations on using outside lawyers—this is purely hypothetical—they are going to bring very few proceedings, because they do not have the staff to bring those proceedings. So if an authority has more lawyers, they can bring more proceedings. When the Children Act 1989 came in, in 1991, the number of lawyers working with children in social care went up enormously. However, there are huge differentials between authorities that have four lawyers and authorities that have 10 lawyers, even though they might have quite similar populations. It tends to be partly historic, but strong legal departments might grow, and small legal departments would not, because they are too busy holding the fort, which will impact on the number of proceedings that they bring. I think that I have already indicated that most Local Authorities could bring more proceedings if they wanted to, and that the success rates would not go down if they brought more proceedings. So, yes, that partly takes account of the differences. As for legal advice and decisions in individual cases, local authorities vary as to whether a social worker can directly consult a legal department for advice without management permission, or whether they have to obtain such permission. I do not know what the position is in Haringey; I have not done research there. In more local authorities than not, I would say that the social worker is able to phone the legal department and ask for advice. However, the advice they get, as in any area, depends on the question they ask. Before the decision is taken to bring proceedings, whether emergency proceedings or an application for a care order, the lawyer would expect to have a greater opportunity to look at the available evidence, for example the case conference minute, if there is a child protection plan, or at what sort of allegations are likely to be capable of being proved, on the basis of whose testimony and what documentation you have got. It is crucial for the decision on section 31, not just as I might give it to law students as a set of facts that I have already determined, that we know what facts can be established. That is the crucial element. If someone is phoned up nine days before and asked a question and given an account, I imagine that they might say, "That does not sound as if it has met the threshold." It is much more likely to be an issue of "What are you planning to do with the child?". If they are planning to leave the child with the parents at that point, the issue would be, "Why do you need to bring proceedings suddenly? Can we have an opportunity to look at the evidence?". It is not just what section 31 states, but very much a case of, "What are you going to do with that child, what is the care plan and what is the evidence basis on which you are doing those things?"

  Q655  Mr Chaytor: May I clarify something that Judith said earlier about the proportion of children who are taken into care in the first three months of life? What was the figure?

  Professor Masson: In our study of 682 children I think that that figure was around 19% or 20%, and I think that it was in that age range.

  Q656  Mr Chaytor: That is not because the family or the mother suddenly became incapable just after the birth?

  Professor Masson: No, a high proportion of them are second children. The mothers of those who are not second children are often substance abusers, so they are born with drug or substance abuse problems.

  Q657  Mr Chaytor: My next question is for Rosalyn. Given that we have touched on the difficulties of identifying families that are not engaging with the children's centre services or SureStart centres, where is the role of antenatal services in all that? There has been no discussion of that or reference to it in the briefing, as far as I can see.

  Dr Proops: There clearly is a role, so you are right. I mentioned the presence of a named midwife within a hospital trust, and it is the relationship between the named midwife and the antenatal services in the community that is so important.

  Q658  Mr Chaytor: Does every woman now have a named midwife?

  Dr Proops: They should do.

  Professor Masson: Some of these mothers do not have any antenatal services, and if they have had no antenatal appointments, that would be one high-risk factor at birth.

  Q659  Mr Chaytor: How can you go through nine months of pregnancy without any contact with antenatal services?

  Dr Proops: A few people still manage to do that.

  Professor Masson: Some do not even know that they are pregnant, actually, or say that they did not.

  Dr Proops: It is about having a network that functions between the local drug and alcohol abuse services, primary care, antenatal services and health visiting services. It is about that community-based network and about finding a way of sharing what we in health would see as confidential information, and a great deal of effort has gone into that, so there is a whole range of things that can happen. The drug and alcohol problem is a major one. There are some programmes to tackle it from one end and some from the other, but it is an area where we need a great deal more evidence and resource, because we know from the United States that that is the seat and area for a large proportion of the babies and pre-school children who are at very high risk and for whom we need to do something.

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