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Council must ‘stop blaming social workers’ for children’s services failure, experts warn

Council must ‘stop blaming social workers’ for children’s services failure, experts warn

🕔11.Feb 2014

Birmingham City Council and partner organisations invariably “blame the social worker” when things go wrong rather than admit to their own managerial shortcomings, according to a critical report into children’s social care.

The council, health professionals, police and schools should form a ‘war cabinet’ to preserve the “fragile” recovery in services for vulnerable children, according to a peer review by the Local Government Association.

The review was undertaken last December at the council’s request weeks before inspectors visited Birmingham to assess performance at the children’s social care department, which is designated inadequate and has been under Government special measures for almost five years.

The peer review findings suggest that the inspectors will uncover only limited improvement and may conclude that many vulnerable children remain at risk in Birmingham. The inspectors’ findings will be a critical factor in the Department for Education’s decision whether or not to switch control of children’s social care from the council to an independent trust.

Officials conducting the review praised the “strong political vision” of council leaders and the performance of the “widely respected” Strategic Director for People, Peter Hay.

But the review uncovered difficulties at the children’s department that stretch back at least 14 years – namely, the failure of ICT equipment to allow social workers to keep proper track of the children on their books.

The peer review report warns: “We observed a tendency in the council and among partners to ‘blame the social worker’ for the problems in Children’s Services. This culture needs to be re-framed.

“Even the best social workers will struggle to operate in an environment where the supporting infrastructure is not fully geared to supporting and enabling them and where the culture is not conducive.”

The review commented on another long-standing issue hampering children’s social care in Birmingham, the failure of partner organisations to work effectively together and to share information.

The report continues: “Bringing together on a regular basis the most senior leaders across all partner agencies will be essential to drive forward the required improvements.

“We recognise that a number of established forums and groupings already exist that bring various partners together at regular intervals. What we are suggesting is a ‘War Cabinet’ type of body that draws key representatives together more informally in order to ensure unified approaches, provide the opportunity for the rapid removal of impediments to progress and enable people to feel they have an influential stake.”

Howard Davis, Principal Adviser at the Local Government Association, has written to Mr Hay underlining the review’s findings.

Mr Davis said: “There is an emerging strategy for improving outcomes for children and young people. However, there is a need to move swiftly to underpin the agreed strategy with action plans and clear lines of accountability across the partnership and at every level in the council.

“There is evidence of improved managerial grip and a greater focus on effective operational delivery but this is extremely variable and needs to progress much further.

“Performance management systems and infrastructure are not currently capable of underpinning improvement. A concerted effort is now being made to address these inadequacies.”

He commented on positive signs around Children’s Services, but added that the council’s position “remains fragile”.

The peer review uncovered “serious concerns” about arrangements for taking children into the social care system, adding that “this poses an immediate risk to the safety of children and young people in Birmingham and warrants urgent action”.

Mr Davis’s report warned: “A solution that is collectively owned by the senior management team within Children’s Services needs to be implemented within a matter of days and not subsequently un-picked or diluted in any way.”

There are further warnings about the number of children at risk without allocated social workers, although a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to be sure of the scale of the problem.

Inadequate IT systems remain at the root of Birmingham’s problems, according to the review.

The report warns: “Performance management systems and infrastructure within Children’s Services are not currently capable of underpinning improvement. Data is too frequently untimely and unreliable – as evidenced by the difficulties in determining whether there are unallocated cases in children’s social care.

“Tackling the host of secondary impediments that act as a barrier to the effective working of staff would represent a very positive start. This includes issues around IT, supervision, caseloads and car parking at work for staff needing to undertake visits.

“A number of long standing infrastructure problems were evident, which need to be addressed and which will require a more flexible and proactive approach from HR and ICT support in particular.”

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