Child protection system shake-up urged

Eileen Munro said the focus on targets "are becoming obstacles on people keeping a clear eye on children"

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Front-line social workers should regain the freedom to decide what is best for children in a shake up of England's child protection system, an official review says.

The review, by social policy expert Professor Eileen Munro, calls for targets and red tape to be scrapped.

Developing social workers' expertise will enable more children to stay with their families, she adds.

The government is investing £80m implementing the reforms this year.

Education Secretary Michael Gove asked Prof Munro to review the child protection system in England, focussing on whether bureaucracy and targets have been getting in the way of good practice.

In her report, the expert from the London School of Economics, says: "Helping children is a human process. When the bureaucratic aspects of work become too dominant, the heart of the work is lost."

'Significant savings'

She argues that the system has become preoccupied by individuals "doing things right" rather than "doing the right thing".

Children on a see-saw

When the government asked Eileen Munro to review child protection procedures, her terms of reference contained a paradox.

On the one hand ministers said they wanted social workers to be free from unnecessary bureaucracy and regulation - to make decisions based on their professional judgment, not simply following procedures.

On the other, they said they wanted social workers to be clear about their responsibilities and to be accountable - lessons must be learned. Errors exposed. Names named. While the former is about the system being hands-off, the second requires it to be hands on.

Of course, it is not a simple either/or. There is a balance to be found between a tick-box approach that blinds professionals to the subtleties of individual cases and a laissez-faire model that sees vulnerable children slipping tragically through the net.

Professor Munro reflects this tension when she points out that timescales for assessing children at risk were introduced because of legitimate concerns about "drift". But now, she claims there's "an over-preoccupation" with such targets.

And she concludes this attitude has meant that learning from professional experience has been limited.

She recommends a chief social worker - similar to a chief medical officer - should be appointed to report directly to government and liaise with the profession.

Prof Munro's report sets out how the system can move from one that has become too bureaucratic and focussed on compliance to one that values and develops professional expertise.

She says centrally-prescribed time scales for formal procedures, such as social work assessments, should be scrapped.

Her report also calls on the government to revise social worker statutory guidance - said to be 55 times longer than that issued nearly 40 years ago.

The amount of regulation has led to child protection staff feeling obliged to do everything by the book rather than use their professional judgement, says the report.

Prof Munro also wants the government to ensure local areas have the freedom to innovate, with local authorities taking more responsibility for helping their staff to operate with a high level of skill and knowledge.

'Radical change'

And she calls for the social workers' expertise to be developed - pointing out that skilled help can enable more children and young people to stay safely with their families and bring "significant savings".

Children in care

  • 2008-9 - 60,900
  • 2009-10 - 64,400

Prof Munro told the BBC people had "underestimated how much skill is needed to do good social work".

She said social workers did not stay on the front line long enough to become really good at the job.

"What I'm recommending is a radical change to how we see a social work career and we have a complete progression into senior management where you're still knocking on the front door and doing real work as well as managing the service."

Her report warns that more money will be needed at first to develop the additional training necessary to set the profession off on a "new path".

Prof Eileen Munro Prof Munro has stressed the importance of nurturing social work expertise

And it cautions that "cherry-picking" reforms will not lead to the desired improvements overall.

One of the major challenges, the report adds, is how to enable a wide range of professionals work together well for the good of vulnerable children.

Clear lines of accountability and named contacts are "vitally important" for this, she adds.

The report also places an emphasis on early intervention, calling on the government to place a duty on local councils to ensure there are enough early-help services for children, young people and families.

In particular it singles out the effectiveness of Sure Start Children's Centres in providing early help and intervention.

'Long term' implementation

Children's Minister Tim Loughton said the review presented some wide-ranging and radically different proposals for reform.

"It is now up to the government and the children's sector to work together to look at the recommendations in detail and assess the implications of their implementation in practice for the long term, not as a short term fix.

"To do this the government will be working closely with a group of professionals from across the children's sector and we will respond to Professor Munro's recommendations later this year."

Chief executive of children's charity 4Children said the review backed many of the calls families are making for a move away from bureaucratic assessment to personalised and hands on support for those who are struggling to cope.

"I hope that government follows Munro's recommendation of local support for families who are struggling but have not yet reached crisis point. Our new campaign, Give me Strength, argues for the urgent need to stop patching up problems after they spiral out of control and make prevention and early intervention a reality."

The College of Social Work agreed that social workers have been hampered by an excessive emphasis on form-filling and a compliance culture.

"Surveys have shown that child protection workers can spend more than 60% of their time at computer screens, time which would often be better spent in face-to-face work with children at risk of harm."

Children's Commissioner Maggie Atkinson said she welcomed the recognition that children and young people of all ages needed early intervention and help.

"Harmful behaviour affecting a child can occur at any age and professionals must be trained to recognise early on when family intervention and support is required for older children."

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