For this article we start a little nearer to home in Herefordshire. Sometimes it is useful to work outwards from the specific experience to a more global view of what should be. The ongoing public scandal around Herefordshire Children’s’ Services continues to be a matter of local, regional and national concern. The failures have been well documented by the Court, national TV, and OfSTED. In summary our children have not been adequately cared for and supported over a significant period and yet nothing seems to change. Indeed, the latest OfSTED report indicates that they have become more worrying. Keeping our children and young people safe must be a cornerstone of a civil society. Such a society cannot call itself, “a society at ease with itself, with a real sense of security, welcome and belonging.”
Inevitably when faced with such deplorable public service our thoughts must turn to accountability. In simplistic terms accountability is a situation in which someone is responsible for events that happen and can give a satisfactory reason for them. It is an acceptance of responsibility for honest and ethical conduct towards others. It implies a willingness to be judged on performance. If you are privileged to enter public service, either as a paid employee or as an elected member, your contract with your people can only be that you will be accountable.
We will return to the Herefordshire situation again, but the onerous requirements of public service were set out in May 1995 when the Government published guidance on the ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’. These are well known as the Nolan Principles and apply to anyone who works as a public office holder – locally or nationally. It will probably be helpful to remind ourselves of this requirement of public accountability:
- Selflessness – act solely in terms of the public interest
- Integrity – must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships
- Objectivity – must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias
- Accountability- are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this
- Openness – must act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing
- Honesty – must be truthful
- Leadership – holders should exhibit these principles in their own behavior and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behavior wherever it occurs.
The Robert Owen Society members were picking up in 2011 that all was not well with the service delivery in Herefordshire for vulnerable young people. As a result, for some twelve months a community wide consultation was undertaken to explore how this might be addressed at least in part. The universal agreement, without any opposition, was that a 14-19 vocational school was needed to help those youngsters disaffected by the local system to be supported in changing the focus of their lives. Such a school should be a co-operative one owned by the other schools and the community. This Robert Owen School would be driven by the ten values that all co-ops are based on, namely:
- Caring for others
- Social responsibility.
The detailed proposal was taken to the Secretary of State who gave his approval in summer 2012 and after a funded development year the Robert Owen Academy opened its doors to students in September 2013. The story of the life of the Academy is documented elsewhere on this website. So why are we raising this here our readers will be entitled to ask? Well with hindsight and the passage of some ten years and in the context of recent local developments the historical disjointed pieces are beginning to fall into place it would seem.
Almost from day one the Academy came under intense attack from the Local Authority, some headteachers, elected members across the board and a prospective parliamentary candidate. The attacks were coordinated, were intensely hostile and were described privately by civil servants as of such a nature seen nowhere else in England. Consultation with headteachers, chairs of governors, elected members and senior LA officers began unearthing attitudes to our vulnerable young people that were disturbing. One chair of governors referred to her/his vulnerable children as “rubbish”, a view communicated directly to the Head of Children’s Services and OfSTED.
As time and student recruitment progressed the Academy Trust and Governors discovered a significant number of young people with complex needs, supported by a network of agencies having been through the hands of too many schools. Additionally, a Trust commissioned consultancy indicated up to 350 local young people sleeping under hedges and in shop doorways supposedly unknown to Children’s Services. OfSTED inspectors seemed uninterested in such details and when one lead inspector listened and recognised what was going on his report was buried, not to see the light of day, and an immediate brief re inspection ordered which was solely data driven and made the judgment special measures. The Secretary of State closed the Academy in August 2018.
Fast wind to September 2022 and the latest OfSTED report on Herefordshire Children’s Services which is at the tip of disturbing court judgments and previous critical OfSTED reports. Enter officers and elected members breast beating and shedding crocodile tears, chanting ‘we must do better’. We must ask the question, where has been accountability and what has been going on in back channels? It is easy to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but it does seem from the outside that there has been a conspiracy of silence and obfuscation and a fear that the Robert Owen Academy was likely to disturb the cozy consensus. Hence a target to close it using OfSTED as the attack weapon. Civil servants told us time and time again that if the Herefordshire Local Authority had been supportive the Academy would have remained open.
So, from the specific to the general how do we ensure full and open accountability in Children’s Services delivery across the UK? Try this list as a suggestion for further discussion:
- Learn from the past
- Develop a community wide transparent vision and purpose
- Set measurable goals which recognise reality; obstacles and blocks to change
- Peer group review at all levels
- Client involvement in policy review and delivery
- Set the Nolan Principles as KPI’s
- Develop a culture of blame free honesty
- Clear out the clutter – including human
- Celebrate success and change
- Make the family in its various manifestations central to all Children’s Services policy and planning.
Let us return to the specifics of Herefordshire Children’s Services for a moment. Despite the earlier news headlines, Panorama documentary and assurances from the local authority, the public are presented with another critical OfSTED report on the Service. Campaigners are feeling vindicated for their accusations of a lack of management, social workers, high caseloads, and staff turnovers. This in addition to parents who say that they have had their children wrongly removed from them.
A judge has criticised the Herefordshire department over long-standing failings, the former children’s services director it is reported had given permission for a child’s life support to be switched off, after listening to “incorrect legal advice”. This was a serious failure in any context. Where is the transparent institutional accountability that is in the public domain which could help to ease the anxiety of other potentially vulnerable families?
Despite these highlighted failures at the time action plans have not been transparent. There was reshuffling of staff and other departments. However, it is difficult to work out the nature of accountability. Councilors themselves had criticised lying, delay and misdirection, in addition to the bullying culture that existed. In addition to the Nolan principles, which do not seem to have been upheld with this public service, there are workers’ rights to consider within the context of accountability.
With little evidence of any kind of direct accountability is it any surprise that there has been no improvement but in fact there has been an OfSTED documented further deterioration of this service? New staff were appointed to oversee the department. Despite this, the further deterioration has occurred. The staff who were appointed have it appears to have made little or no difference. Why is this? Is the culture of this department so against change that it cannot be corrected? We must also look to the root cause of the failure of this department and others. Whilst there is a failure of culture and accountability, we must try to work out why so many families find themselves in such vulnerable circumstances.
Increasing crisis in families means that here has been a lack of guidance and support earlier before the crisis intervention is required from local services. Indications would seem to point to earlier service delivery failures which have led to a lack of support of families and children. Let us start from the earliest intervention. This would be the midwife. He/she would be on hand to guide the early days of a child’s life. There would be support with the basic care needed and identification of the struggling parent(s). This would be passed onto the health visitor, who would call on the family, intervene if necessary or guide the family to offering basic care and support where it was required. An experienced health visitor would give guidance on parenting or support services which could help both the parents and the child. A holistic approach which could prevent deterioration of the family unit and enforce good parenting. These families would then have been further supported by services such as Sure Start or Toddler groups, being taught parenting skills and intervention where it was required. Then they would be encouraged to enter the Nursery placements where issues could be discussed, and more parenting support given.
The national impact of the depletion of midwives has serious consequences. There is not enough time or attention given to the families due to bed pressures, high workloads, and a lack of staff. The same can be said of the health visitors. Increasingly pressure is falling on the families to muddle their way through, without the support of these crucial services.
Sure Start was a way of offering support and parenting skills to families and would help to identify at an early stage those families who required intervention. This is now a failure of care from public services. Early intervention has been shown to be successful and has been misguidedly eroded as the result of funding cuts.
Accountability across the UK is required from all sectors. Accountability with risk assessment seems to be lacking and due to this there appears to be more issues created. Cuts in public services seem to have paid little cognisance to opportunity cost. We would suggest that it is false economy to be cutting essential services. The loss of these services puts pressure on the Social Service departments, NHS, schools, and education support services. Vulnerable children are then easily failed, if their needs are identified to start with.
Increasingly, families are facing crisis. More and more families will join the ever long queue of cases for social services. National and local policy makers have left families struggling financially and figures show that families in deprived areas are more at risk of their children entering the care system. Social work is now no longer one of support, it seems to have become more, one of policing.
Herefordshire Children’s Service current troubles are a consequence of inadequate government policies, poor local management and the lack of an open, transparent and accountable system. If effective change is to take place at local and national level we must learn the lessons of the past. If we turn the Nolan Principles into KPI’s they become core to everyone’s working life. Public servants are accountable to the public. In being accountable to our people, we must be honest and say that they too as a service are being failed. A lack of early intervention means that more families will face crisis. A lack of funding will result in less help being available in the form of support. We are cutting investment in our future.
There can be no ignoring the fact that a lack of accountability for the past and present means there is more failure to come. A culture that hasn’t changed, is not accountable is not one that bodes well for the future. Safeguarding of our children may mean that we must put in safeguards against failing services. Safeguarding is a way of looking at process and improving service. Children’s Services need staff, management and elected members committed to change and an institutional culture which fosters and supports accountability and improvement. Qualified management must oversee the changes which are required. Improvement will be through a well co-ordinated multi agency approach which involves clients at every stage. Support is carried out with our people rather than a poor service done to them, irrespective of need.
As usual we welcome feedback. This is such an important area that no one group holds all the solutions. Let’s hear your views. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks for taking time to read this.