Jake Morgan, Chair All Wales Head's of Children's Services
Western Mail Article, August 2011
Change can often seem like a way of life in children's services. As the Head of Children's services in Carmarthenshire for the last 6 years and the chair of the all Wales Heads of children's Services, I cannot remember a period where there has been such a volume of change, coming so rapidly to children's social services. Fortunately a very positive element of much of the current change is that there is such a collective desire to improve and develop services both nationally and locally across Wales.
There is a growing consensus on a need to develop and change the role of social workers. We need to take them out of the office and increase the time they spend with children and their families. In a desire to make services safer guidance and regulation has too often been overly prescriptive. Whilst this approach has improved consistency across Wales (and services have without question dramatically improved in the last 10 years) an unintended consequence has been the de-skilling of our workforce. Effective child protection requires a high level of skills from our social workers, fine judgement and an acceptance of the inherent uncertainty which exist within this type of work. No amount of prescription or forms can eradicated risk or uncertainty entirely. As professor Eileen Munroe recently reported in her recommendation to the English government re the reforms of child protection the desire to eradicate risk has 'created a defensive system that puts so much emphasis on procedures and recording that insufficient attention is given to developing and supporting the expertise to work with children, young people and families'.
At the last count Children's services report more than 50 national performance indicators and have many thousands of pages of guidance and procedures. This is an overload on practitioners and at worst can divert resources from the front line.
Fortunately in Wales we are increasingly leading the way to address these issues. It is an area that Welsh local government, policy makers and professionals are all working actively together to create a framework of performance indicators that capture user experience as an alternative to measuring timescales compliance and the completion of forms. Indicators should more accurately inform the public as to the quality of services they pay for rather than the processes social workers comply with. Neath Port Talbot have led the way in this area with a fundamental systems review to improve service user experience. This is a great example of innovation being led from the front line of Welsh local government. I know that across Wales Children's Services are looking at these kind of developments to learn and enable us all to develop services that are as safe as they can possibly be and to ensure that our services deliver real improvements for children and their families.
A new national career development framework for Social workers in Wales has been developed by the Care Council for Wales. Whilst this is still out for consultation it will provide a vital framework for the career development of social workers It will allow the very best practitioners to progress their career without becoming a manager through the development of the National career grade of a consultant social worker. This is an area in which I am confident that I speak for the profession in welcoming wholeheartedly and will enable the very best people to come into and stay in front line practice.
Collaboration between authorities is a vital component of continued improvement of children's services. With an exciting agenda of change in the development of a national adoption service and with some authorities sharing senior managers between each other this sharing of expertise and the subsequent critical mass this produces is a vital component of our journey of continuous improvement in children's services across Wales.
Of course alongside these changes services are having to respond to record levels of demand with increased referrals and growing numbers of looked after children putting severe financial pressure on many councils. Delivering increased consistency in all areas as demand grows is a challenge most authorities have stepped up to. There is however a financial price to pay for this. Children's Services overspent by £17,000,000 last year leaving councils facing unenviable choices as to what their priorities should be.
Despite these pressures and challenges what is clear is that improving the outcomes for the most vulnerable children in our communities is a priority for all in local and national government. The signs are that Wales is on the right track to really make a difference and build on the considerable good practice that already exists across Wales.