Children’s services should face random inspections, says report

Social workers spend too much time on paperwork, Professor Eileen Munro finds in review of child protection in England

Children’s services should be subject to random, unannounced inspections and Oftsed should lose powers to evaluate the failings of key workers in abuse cases, an independent review of England’s child protection system has found.

In an interim report for education secretary Michael Gove, Professor Eileen Munro said the safety of children is being compromised because social workers spend too much time on paperwork and focusing on targets driven by the requirements of Ofsted evaluations.

Acknowledging that children’s services were operating in a difficult financial environment, Munro said: “Too often questions are asked if rules have been met but not whether this has helped children. Everyone in the profession can think of meetings and forms that don’t actually make a child safer. While some regulation is needed, we need to reduce it to a small, manageable size.”

Guidance for the police, health authorities, and social workers was now 55 times longer than when it was introduced in 1974. She was considering how to strip out statutory requirements. “I think there is an anxiety that this will be more dangerous but we are asking for more responsibility from individuals to use their own judgments in cases,” Munro said.

The report suggests testing the argument that frontline social workers need greater autonomy to better exercise their professional judgment by granting five local authorities temporary suspension of large tranches of statutory guidance. Social workers in Cumbria, Knowsley, Westminster, Hackney and Gateshead would work to their own timetables – for conferences and filling out forms – rather than those suggested in law.

Although the trials would be monitored, Munro said there was a risk that if a lapse in the five local authorities affected the welfare of a child, that may affect the scheme. “The risk could be that something totally unrelated happens but the council (is blamed) … that kind of (media) attitude just adds to people’s anxiety.”

The increased volume of guidance has gone hand-in-hand with a number of high-profile cases where public concern about communications and record keeping was assuaged by an ever-increasing burden of bureaucracy. The Laming report after the death Victoria Climbie began the process in 2003 but it was the ‘Baby P’ case which saw social workers, in the words of the review, “castigated for failing to see he was being maltreated”.

Toddler Peter Connelly died after enduring months of abuse in 2007. The ensuing panic saw professionals spending more time with computer forms than families and an 11% rise in referrals to child protection agencies.

Munro says the key is for fewer, more appropriate referrals. “If this can be achieved, then families will experience fewer unproductive referrals to children’s social care and the case loads will become manageable,” she concludes.

Children’s minister Tim Loughton said: “Professor Munro has identified areas where professionals’ time is being wasted and children’s needs are not being properly identified.

“I welcome her approach to getting help to the neediest children and families as early as possible, and recognising that child protection is not just the responsibility of social workers.”

An Ofsted spokesman said: “Ofsted welcomes the report and the proposals both for the children’s social work field and for the inspection of these services.

“We endorse the importance placed on prevention and early intervention, as well as services focused on those children identified as being at risk.

“It is also encouraging to see that inspection is valued by the review and the sector as a significant factor in driving improvement and the finding that inspection should continue to play this distinct role.

“We welcome the opportunity to further improve the inspection process and look forward to the extension and development of unannounced inspections that cover all children’s services.”

Munro will submit her final report in April.