Reform of Children's Scoial Work - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 20-39)


29 MARCH 2010

  Q20  Mr Timpson: What is the sub-group called?

  Moira Gibb: It is called the Education Sub-Group—very dull, I am afraid.

  Q21  Mr Timpson: Is it affiliated to the Department?

  Moira Gibb: No, it is a sub-group of the Reform Board. The Reform Board is supported by the Joint Social Work Unit, which supported the Task Force, so there is continuity there. Many organisations are contributing to the work. We have met three times already. The Reform Board commissioned this work through sub-groups, so more people are getting involved than simply those 20 people. For example, we have another chief executive chairing the employers sub-group. We are bringing together lots of people. If everybody is talking about it and doing something in their own authority, we will have more change happening than if we wait for another recommendation from the Reform Board.

  Q22  Mr Timpson: Who is deciding who is involved in the sub-groups, and who are they reporting to? How can we find out what they are doing and what difference they are making?

  Moira Gibb: The Reform Board has the overall responsibility to oversee the implementation. We are dependent on the support of the joint unit, which is in the gift of the two Departments—the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. We hope that that will continue because it is very hard for a bunch of people who have other jobs to do that work without support. We are publishing our minutes online, and the reports from the sub-groups are online as well. We have a website.

  Q23  Mr Timpson: Go for it, give it to us. What is the address?

  Moira Gibb: I will send it to you.[3]

  Mr Timpson: The reason why I am interested is that I don't want what happened after the first stage of the report to happen again. Essentially, very little progress was made. We want to see some discernible progress and that the report is being properly monitored and implemented by those who have a vested interest in doing so.

  Q24  Chair: Some of the time lines are a bit worrying, aren't they?

  Moira Gibb: Some of them are long. We recognise that it is very important that some things begin to happen soon. On the other hand, some reforms need to be well developed and understood. Various parts of the partnership that need to make them happen must be involved in making the reforms sensible and doable. We cannot change the assessed year in practice at the end of the degree; we cannot introduce that suddenly, when students are in the middle of their degree. It has to be clear when they start their degree that that is what they will have to do. We also need to know how it will work and how the assessment will work, so some of that will have to be piloted. The Reform Board is not an entity, so it will have to work through the joint unit. The resources to support this over a longer period are incredibly important.

  Chair: Paul wanted to come in on something Fiona said earlier.

  Q25  Paul Holmes: It was the whole motherhood and apple pie thing. Fiona was talking about the importance of the mentoring role for the social worker. How did we ever lose that? My wife was a social worker for a long time and a team leader. Every time I went to a pub with her and her colleagues, it was all they ever talked about. It was an automatic part of the job. When I was in teaching, it was the same. We had a department leader and everybody talked to each other. How have we moved away from that so that we have to say we should be doing this? Of course we should be doing it.

  Moira Gibb: That is a good question and I am not sure that I am able to answer it. Part of it was relying on the information coming from the IT system and assuming that you didn't have to spend all your time as a team manager talking to your social workers to know what was going on. "What's happening with the Joneses? Have you been to see them?" You had it in front of you, therefore you perhaps had a false sense of security. Then, of course, the demands on those managers got greater in lots of different ways, so that the time that they had available was reduced. I remember one person saying, "My manager is committed to supervision and certainly wants to give me supervision. It's in the diary, but then she's called away to court, or to another meeting, or to something else." So, I think that it's kind of a boiling frog problem, really, that people didn't notice they'd lost it until it was too late. Therefore, we have to go back and reinvent it.

  Q26  Chair: When we were taking evidence on this, it seemed to us—it certainly seemed to me—that some of the evidence that we were given suggested a problem. Here were people who were recruited to be social workers. We met some wonderful social workers during this inquiry. Many social workers do a wonderful job and do jobs that most of us would not want to do in tough circumstances, for pay that we would not want to earn. Set that to one side, however. There is another aspect—that those social workers were not trained as managers. You just wonder. You have these talented social workers. They were not trained as managers, but it seemed to us that they had quite a management role. Should there not be a core of much better management within the centre of their department, which would relieve them of some of the burden that they obviously feel they have?

  Moira Gibb: I tend to think that social workers do make good managers, actually, because you've got to be pretty tough. On the other hand, that model operates in the health service and people would speculate as to whether it works well or not so well. When I have talked to people who have been in difficulties in their children's services in particular, when you ask them what went wrong, again it was often the absence of a senior person. For example, the assistant director responsible for social care didn't have a social work background. So there is a challenge to make sure that they have the management development that they need to manage at each stage, and to encourage more of them to stay in practice. But I'm not sure that it is fundamentally different from lots of other places. For example, head teachers are fundamentally managers now, are they not? I also have to say, with all due respect to your Committee, that lawyers manage other lawyers, but again their talents don't lie in management. We all have to learn these other skills.

  Q27  Chair: For my sins, I happen to be the chairman of the parliamentary management group. There are skills about management that don't just happen. There are skills that you learn and there are skills that you practise, and they are skills that will atrophy if you don't replenish them with continuous professional development. You are quite right; there are other professions that are similar. But we listened to people talk about their experience, especially when we met the trainees who had not long been in the job. They couldn't look behind. Management is a very complex thing. It involves prioritisation of your work. What do you do when you're overloaded? How do you cope with the balancing of those priorities? It just seemed to us that that was a bit of a gap.

  Moira Gibb: Although our focus was expected to be on the front line, we made a particular recommendation about managers. Often, the most important person in a social worker's life is their first line manager. We said that there needed to be a bit of development for those managers, and not just for the first line managers. One of our very precious 15 recommendations is just about that. Management is important, it isn't automatic and some people are better at it than others. But that sense of continuous professional development should happen whether you stay in the line of continuing practice or in management. Otherwise we are moving backwards, if we are not improving.

  Q28  Fiona Mactaggart: On the issue of management and the things that you talk about in terms of public understanding, I was thinking about that in relation to a constituency case. Actually, I had an e-mail from the constituent this morning. I had dealt with him before, when his daughter made an allegation of abuse against him and his wife to a teacher. They were arrested and held by the police, and the case file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. His e-mail today asked me whether the fact that it took five months for there to be no prosecution was because he was a Muslim. There is an issue about public understanding for the people who are involved in this system that isn't really addressed enough by your report. We need to fix it and empower management in the social work service to ensure that other bits of the system—the school in this case, or the Crown Prosecution Service and so on—don't let things progress slowly, because the children were expensively in care for some weeks following the allegations. It seems that there's a gap here, that we haven't got a tough enough system to fix and the management skills that can make other bits of the system work fast enough, which could communicate to people who are caught up in the system, whether they are guilty or innocent, so that they know what's going on around them, and therefore perhaps achieve some prevention work for families who might be at the edge of abuse, for example.

  Moira Gibb: We worked hard to try to ensure that we were hearing service users' and carers' voices in the work that we did. One of the things that we produced in trying to help that public understanding was a description of social work, which we produced in an interim report, encouraging people to explain what they did and how they did it. But I think that what you're really touching on is influence, and a profession that's undervalued is likely to have less influence. Social workers certainly feel that their voices aren't loud enough in some of those multi-disciplinary environments, and in other institutions. It is a very important skill—that sense of an advocate on behalf of a child or the wider family, to make the system work better for people. It's often the service they most value. At the event on Monday night that I was talking about, we heard the story of a service user in a hospice. He was unwell and not able to come, but the value of the social worker making things happen—knocking on doors and getting through them—for him in his vulnerable state was incredibly important. Again, it isn't necessarily easy to understand what that is. If you haven't got confidence in and understanding of your own role, you're quite easily shut out, so I think it's very important.

  Q29  Mr Timpson: The Social Work Task Force trying to gain more influence and get a better ear for what it does often leads back to the area of leadership. You deal with that in a chapter in your report, which predominantly deals with the issue of the college. But within each local authority, you have to have leadership in children's services where it involves social care. Are you happy or confident with the current structure in local authorities when it comes to social services, where we have a more generic director of children's services normally? We have the children's trust and the local children's safeguarding board, and we have a portfolio holder in the cabinet for that area. Sometimes it's difficult to know where the decisions are being made and who is providing the leadership. Do you think there is a better way of doing this—for instance, having someone in the local authority whose sole responsibility is for children's social care rather than it being part of the overall structure of children's services? Are children's trusts doing what we think they're meant to do, although we're not always entirely sure?

  Chair: That's a big double-barrelled one.

  Mr Timpson: There are a lot of questions there, but I should like to pick out children's trusts and the director of children's services—whether it's the right sort of role.

  Moira Gibb: I think it is essential that there is better leadership. The college is one form of leadership, but the leadership needs to happen in different places. Certainly, lots of the social workers we met who work in mental health trusts, for example, were concerned that often they would be working in a team and they didn't have anywhere to go. I think there is scope for having a professional social work leader that supports social workers working in different settings. The director of children's services has an overarching responsibility for children's services, which includes children's social work. We've encouraged directors of children's services to work with their adult social work colleagues on some of the work, because they won't have the capacity to do it just for children's social workers or adult social workers—but they could do it jointly. I think the CWDC, Skills for Care and others should try to collaborate more around social work so there is only one newly qualified social work programme, as it were, rather than one for adults and one for children's services, and seeing the unifying forces there. That will give leadership. But it needs to be in different places. Universities themselves need to give more leadership. We heard only last week that there is only one school of social work on its own now in England—they're all combined in other different settings, but again, the assumption that it will thrive in that environment is a risky one. We need to give attention to where social work is promoted, supported and led.

  Q30  Mr Timpson: Children's trusts. What are they for? What are they doing? Are they helping in improving the influence—

  Chair: We found it difficult. The Sure Start Children's Centres report came out this morning, and we're all very proud of it. One thing that Edward's rightly identified and is trying to get out of you, I hope, is just how well children's trusts are working.

  Moira Gibb: I haven't got evidence about that. We didn't take evidence about children's trusts.

  Q31  Chair: Have you got one in your authority?

  Moira Gibb: Yes. I think it works well, but there are many challenges to it, and making sure that it isn't just the local authority, but that the other players are as active and committed, is important. We didn't take any evidence on that.

  Q32  Chair: Do your health people come to yours?

  Moira Gibb: We've had a lot of change in our primary care trust recently, and there is a lot of change in London, but yes, they do. But continuity is always helpful.

  Chair: It sounds as though they come sporadically.

  Q33  Mr Timpson: Do you think adult social care and children's social care should be inspected by the same inspectorate?

  Moira Gibb: It is important, whoever is doing the inspection, that there is support for the profession of social work within that. Certainly, we are talking about the inspectorates looking at the support that employers give to the development of professional social workers in their work, rather than assuming it's all the same. But in terms of the Task Force, we didn't have a view about that.

  Q34  Mr Timpson: I'm just looking at your CV and the huge amount of experience that you have in social work and social services generally. Do you have a view about whether Ofsted should be inspecting children's services or whether CSCI should be doing it?

  Moira Gibb: I think we should all be cautious about assuming that structural change is the answer.

  Mr Timpson: We heard that in the last session.

  Moira Gibb: You were talking about management earlier and the skills in managing. Creating a new organisation demands a huge amount of effort and energy, and it takes some time for those organisations to be working effectively; so I haven't studied that question really, and I started off, when I was first asked to chair the Task Force, thinking I knew what the answer was, but I changed my mind a number of times on that journey, because of the evidence that we received. So it would be a top-of-the-head response, which I don't think is valuable.

  Chair: But you are director of a very important London borough.

  Moira Gibb: Very high-performing. Can I get that on the record, please?

  Q35  Chair: A very high-performing London borough. You must look around in London, and your colleagues in some parts of the country—the Ofsted inspections sometimes in the recent past don't seem as if they exactly knew what they were doing. They were sitting there and gave evidence to this Committee that they could do it all by desktop exercise. They could evaluate. They could say, "Good in part; outstanding in others"—all done on the desktop. No visits, no face-to-face. What kind of inspection is that? Were you comfortable with that; that you could be evaluated as a directorate of children's services, with an inspectorate that was told not to visit?

  Moira Gibb: I think as a society we'll have to decide what the things are that the public, in particular, want assurance on, because obviously, with resources becoming significantly tighter, we will have to apply that resource in the right places. I think the public are obviously very concerned about the quality of services to the most vulnerable, but I wouldn't want to be drawn on commenting on Ofsted, because, again, it wasn't something we had a lot of evidence about. We have, anecdotally, of course; people express anxiety—

  Q36  Chair: Moira, I think you're in the wrong profession; perhaps the diplomatic corps, or running the Foreign Office. Your three musketeers behind you are grinning at that. Could you tell us where your three musketeers are from?

  Moira Gibb: The joint unit.

  Q37  Chair: Are they seconded by the Department?

  Moira Gibb: Yes. We have secondees from the Department of Health and from DCSF, but also from other bodies that have an interest in this—Skills for Care, for example, and others—and that's been very valuable. And I have to say that, again, the Department of Health and the DCSF have stuck together. Lots of things have been pulling them apart in these times, but they have stuck together, I think, very well on this support to the Task Force.

  Chair: I'm glad we managed to get them to smile.

  Q38  Mr Timpson: One last question, if I may. The social worker I mentioned I spoke to last week is a young man, two years newly qualified, working in a London borough, and from his demeanour, his manner, his knowledge and his clear ability when I met him, he's not someone the social work force wants to lose, but he's thinking of quitting because of the pressure he's under in his job. He's been given cases that are way beyond his capability at the level he's at, although he aspires to that level. One of the things he said to me was, "One of the things we struggle with is that those in authority, who make decisions about where we go and what we do, don't really understand what we do. What they need to do is come out with us to a house and stand there in a room when you have an irate parent, a drunk parent, a potentially physically abusive parent, a very distressed parent—whatever it may be in those circumstances. They don't really seem to understand the pressures that we're under." Do you think it would be worth considering—and I ask you to take this back—in a small way trying to bridge that gap that was described to me, and getting all local councillors, and even, dare I say it, Members of Parliament, to go out, like they do when they are offered to go out on a fire engine or in a police car, and spend some time with a social worker, out on the job, to see exactly what it involves?

  Moira Gibb: I certainly think that that front-line understanding is incredibly important. It conveys to the social workers that people think that the job they do is valuable. I haven't mentioned the health check the Task Force included in its final report. At the first meeting of the Reform Board, we said that we wanted to go ahead and encourage all employers, but particularly local authorities as they have the most challenge, to carry out this health check with their front-line practitioners. I would hope that the young man you are talking about would be encouraged by being involved in that health check, and that the local authority would take very seriously how it was going to make his life less difficult, and therefore that it would be possible for him to continue in practice. The health check letter will be going out any minute now to all employers. We are trying to ensure that all employers of social workers do it. It is not to say that a case load of 16 is the absolute for a team; but in any team you should be able to say what is a reasonable case load for it. So if you work with children with disabilities, for example, and parents want to stay in touch with the social worker and not have a different social worker each time, a case load of 40 might be appropriate because you're not working with them; but if you are in front-line child protection a case load of 10 or 12 might be much more appropriate. We are asking, through this health check, for people to be publicly saying, "We think that this is the case load we would aim for, and these are some of the practical steps we are going to put in place to try to get closer to that case load limit."

  Q39  Chair: How are we going to protect social workers, or even prepare them for the ghastly media that we have in this country? There is just appalling coverage of anything. We saw it in Haringey and we've seen it Birmingham. It isn't that dreadful incidents don't happen—dreadful child murders that we all regret—but every bit of evidence given to this Committee tells us that in this country and in other countries with that level of mental ill health and of drug and alcohol addiction, and so much else, no one will be able to eradicate this entirely. We know that. We know it from international experience in Denmark and other places. What I call "cheap-jack" politicians say, "This must never happen again"—we saw that in recent months and we had it with Haringey—but we know that that is deluding the public and damaging professional social workers. What's your view? What can we do to protect social workers from that kind of politician and that kind of journalism?

  Moira Gibb: The thing that would protect them best is the highest quality of practice. That is what we are trying to achieve. Of course, the riposte to "Children will die", or "Why are children known to you, social services, dying?", is what the employer, the agency, needs to be able to deal with. I recognise that the terrible stress and anxiety that the media treatment of these cases causes everyone, not just front-line practitioners, is very high. Going back to our health check, I think it is an opportunity for agencies to say, "We are very stretched. This is the ambition, and this is where we are, and it's going to take us a number of years." The media never like to hear that something is going to take five years, but that's the truth. We cannot fix what we've got at the moment overnight; it will take some considerable time. The advertising campaign that the Children's Workforce Development Council has conducted produced lots and lots of interest, but it will take some considerable time for that to flow into qualified social workers with the right kind of experience. Of course, the question at that point will be whether people have money to employ more. It is very wasteful to train more and more people and then let them go after two years to do something less stressful. We need to engage with the media and talk to them about it, and keep up that openness, giving them access and an understanding of the wide range of cases that people are working with. I think the public see "that child there" as the only case the social worker is working on, and we are not able to explain that they have 15 other quite similar but equally difficult cases they are struggling with and trying to balance. Of course, they also make mistakes. They are not all as well trained as I would want them to be, but there is an honesty about those mistakes when they happen, rather than people trying not to recognise that things have gone wrong. It is a terrible conundrum. Nurses can kill their patients, but they are still highly regarded by the public. It is that absence of understanding and knowledge of social workers in their private, personal lives that means that the public take one social worker's mistake as damning the whole profession.

3   Note by witness: Back

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