Category Archives: Public Policy Exchange

On child protection, preventable deaths and my objection to the business of Safeguarding

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DanielAs a nation, we are recoiling still as the full scale of the horror of a young boy’s protracted abuse, neglect and death in Coventry comes to light. It is heartbreaking to hear news item after news item that reports now, not only of one boy’s suffering, but of the suffering also of his older sibling, who was witness to much of the abuse, and solely responsible for trying to feed and sustain his brother during his short and brutal life.

Two young and vulnerable children whose lives should have been protected by those people, abusing parents aside, whose responsibility it is to be alert and attentive to the protection and welfare of children in their care – teachers, support staff, social workers, doctors, health professionals, and the great body of people who are employed under the burgeoning industry that is Safeguarding Children Boards.

Despite that the older sibling still lives, it is nontheless equally shocking that no professional in Coventry’s Children’s Services picked up on the distress and emotional trauma that must have emanated from every fibre of this young child’s being. Witnessing a sibling’s near drowning, or poisoning with salt, or beatings, or starvation, must have impacted on this child’s academic, social and emotional development, and been evident to any professional with half a care for child welfare.

At a Public Policy Exchange symposium earlier in September 2012 on Child and Adolescent Health and Well-being, I offended some in the audience when I commented that I was highly critical of the rise of, and industry of, Children’s Safeguarding. I can see no great or measurable gains for children and young people in the growth of this sector. My argument being, that in response to one serious case review of several years ago, the death of Kimberley in April 2005, there has been an exponential rise in the number of professionals drawn into newly created Safeguarding roles, as the fervour for this course of action knows no bounds. There is a presumption that the more prominent and high profile an authority’s Safeguarding board, the more protection is afforded its young populace.

That premise, and that confidence has proven, time and again, to be flawed,  as more protracted and appalling cases of child cruelty and deaths have occured, in each case, deaths that could have been prevented, had certain professionals taken action.

What I see as happening with alarming frequency, even within the microcosm of an independent SEN Consultant’s world, is that less people, not more, take responsibility and take action for concerns over children’s welfare and safety. There is always another person, person x, who should deal with matters like that… I have heard that phrase so often, and with such sadness and anger. The person who should act, always, and with immediacy, on concerns of child protection of any kind, is always the person closest to the act, the witness, the observer, the one who is party to information that may convict, that may disturb the peace, that may save a child’s life.

The division of roles between Safeguarding, Child Protection and Special Educational Needs, has not helped and has had an adverse impact on consistency of approach, on clear lines of communication between professionals within and beyond any given setting and on multi-agency communications. There is a disparity of approach and understanding that serves the needs of our most vulnerable young people poorly. In some schools I have been alerted to ‘differences of opinion’ or ‘professional differences’ or even ‘personal issues’ between staff with responsibility individually for Safeguarding, or SEN, or Child Protection. What madness lies there!

The ‘safeguard’, if I can phrase it such, that schools now have in relation to child protection cases, is that there is always someone else out there who knows about such matters, whose reponsibility it is to deal with such issues. Child protection, issues of special educational need, of emotional or social needs, of neglect, of abuse, are seen as someone else’s problem.

Teaching assistant xxxxx broke down in tears in court, when she said he wanted to eat “muddy and dirty” pancakes which had been on the floor.

Daniel’s mother claimed he was being treated for a rare eating disorder and school staff were not to feed him. They complied with her instructions.

The family also had contact with social workers, doctors, health visitors and police.

Education officials investigated Daniel’s poor school attendance and health visitors went to the home but never saw him, the court heard

What I find most shocking and disturbing here, and that most enrages, is that from appearance, no professional lines of conduct have been followed. The ‘eating disorder’ should have been followed up immediately with documentary evidence, if that was the case, and with a multi-professional meeting to discuss how to manage eating problems within school, if any member of staff could really believe the story woven by the abusive mother. But then we counter that with the evidence of the boy’s weight, and the comment of another member of the school staff that the boy was like a ‘bag of bones’. How could so much damage, so much abuse, have been witnessed on a daily basis within the child’s school, and not acted upon?

Attendance issues should, at that early stage, have been picked up by school staff and teachers in the first instance, given the right of every reception teacher to visit family’s at home in those early pre-school years and to continue to follow up on practical matters through home visits. Visiting SEN professionals would have been alerted at a very early stage to concerns over this child’s behaviour, welfare, appearance, yet it seems that concerns, if they were raised at all, were dismissed.

It is a great tragedy that any pre-school child should die, hidden from the world, alone and unprotected, in the relative privacy of a family home.

It is a crime that any child of school age should die, and for that protracted neglect and abuse to be witnessed by so many professionals who could have taken action, at any time, that would have prevented such an appalling outcome.

I despair of the lack of appreciation or  understanding of how people operate within schools and within communities, despite the commissioning of the Munro Review of Child Protection (May 2011). I do not subscribe to Munro’s point of view that Local Safeguarding Children Boards are key to improving multi-agency working, or that they are

well placed to identify emerging problems thorugh learning from practice…

On the contrary, I would suggest that the growth of Safeguarding has left our most vulnerable children and young people defenceless, in their homes, schools and communities, as there is a reluctance by many education and health professionals to ‘escalate’ emerging problems to a level at which something may be done.

I am aware of schools who have turned a blind eye to evidence of neglect or abuse or distress, because they regard witnesses as unreliable, or out to stir up trouble, or because if actions are taken they will lose the confidence of the parents, and they in turn will remove their child from school, and if they go, this family will remove their children also… Fresh words in my mind’s eye, because the logic of it is unfailing, but the sentiment unpalatable.

Safeguarding Boards are too heavy handed an approach to deal with the range of issues that education and health professionals face daily. They are distant, remote, large and cumbersome bodies that are best kept at arm’s length, disturbed only at great peril. They are ineffectual at responding, with a light touch, to a teaching assistant, or teacher’s concerns over a child’s welfare. Collectively, they are failing our children.

Ofsted produced a report on Good Practice by Local Safeguarding Children Boards, in September 2011, but it does not reassure. And of those examples of good practice, how many Safeguarding Boards operate in such a manner? Too few, scattered thin and sparse around the country.

Executive summary

Local Safeguarding Children Boards are the key statutory mechanism for agreeing how the relevant organisations in each local area cooperate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, with the purpose of holding each other to account and ensuring that safeguarding children remains high on the agenda across the partnership area.

In May 2011, the final report from the Munro Review of Child Protection, A child-centred system, was published. Within this report, Professor Munro set out the important role that Local Safeguarding Children Boards have in monitoring the effectiveness of partner agencies and recognised that they are key to improving multi-agency working, to support and enable partner organisations to adapt their practice and become more effective in safeguarding children.

Munro states that Local Safeguarding Children Boards are:

‘…well placed to identify emerging problems through learning from practice and to oversee efforts to improve services in response.’ [1]

She strongly advocates a move away from a compliance culture to a learning culture and sees the Local Safeguarding Children Board as key to the development of a ‘learning system’.

This report highlights elements of good practice in the operation of Local Safeguarding Children Boards. It aims to support the development of ‘learning systems’, by encouraging all Local Safeguarding Children Boards to reflect on their practice and plan for improvement.


In this context, I can see no good or fathomable reason why the board set up to protect children’s welfare in Coventry, and who so clearly failed in that duty, should be the ones to lead the inquiry into what went wrong. In such times, the need for honesty and integrity is never more paramount.

As a final comment, I am highly concerned that the body called upon to conduct a Serious Case Review should be the authority’s own Children’s Safeguarding Board. In all instances, what is needed is transparency and confidence – confidence in a system that seeks to ensure the best possible outcome for all concerned.

As a footnote to this post, I have added a link to Coventry’s SCB which has posted an update on its site – http://www.coventrylscb.org.uk/

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On the need for a strong sense of identity, in education and in life

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This past week I have spoken at a Public Policy Exchange symposium on the consultative revised Early Years Foundation Stage. My speech and preparations for the question and answer session, from a highly informed and alert audience, have taken up much of my thinking time, have pre-occupied me daily awhile.

I spoke alongside Chris Barnham, Deputy Director, Early Years Quality and Standards, Dept for Education, the most charming and collected of speakers. The morning  session was chaired by the excellent, highly entertaining and eloquent Michael Freeston, Director of Quality Improvement, Pre-School Learning Alliance.

Such illustrious names and I, the humble consultant, trading my wares in the market place, drifting where needed or wanted, sitting betwixt the great and the good.

Back to my post heading and the need for a strong sense of identify, in education and in life. My thoughts, perhaps, should be with the fate of the consultative EYFS document, with other symposium outcomes, with contacts to be made, tentative contracts clarified and secured, with preparations for the next event. But something still lingers in my mind that disquiets, and causes me to ponder how some have so fragile a sense of identity – and with that whole notions of self-belief, confidence, internal value systems – that it is possible for others to ride rough-shod over the remnants of self-respect that linger like dirt in an unshaken carpet.

Of course, I am thinking here, not just of individuals, but of whole groups of people, of the collective identity and nature of the workforce. Specifically, I am thinking of the early years’ workforce, employed in a vast range of settings, with equally as vast an array of qualifications and experience.

Dame Tickell referenced in her recent review of EYFS that it was imperative to move away from a sector largely populated by young, poorly qualified females. I am paraphrasing badly, loathe to peer again in the nitty gritty of policy documents that dominate my sight and attention for much of my daily life, but that is the gist of it, however it is truced up and phrased.

At the symposium, one woman commented that there was a need for those in early years to remember what they were achieving, what was significant about them and their work, or thoughts along those lines. How right she was to make that point, but how rarely that point is raised. I missed my opportunity to say then, what I have thought for some while but not articulated. Ah, the great beauty of blogs and that capacity to set out all our best intentions, our finest words, long after they are needed, so much post the event…

In May 2008 I was commissioned by Ofqual to investigate various matters in the Foundation Stage Profile, as preparation for the introduction of the EYFS in September 2008. For perhaps the first time in my working life, I became involved in visiting a number of nurseries, private providers, school and other settings. It was an illuminating experience, for many reasons, not least that it gave me the background and context and knowledge to complete the Ofqual commission.

For the most part, private providers aside, I will say that I have never met a more humble, compliant, apologetic and demure range of practitioners as I did in that Summer. Every meeting or discussion I arranged, however informal, was preceded by a great series of apologies from my host in the early years setting.

Apologies came thick and fast  – for everything from the size of the chairs for our meeting, the clutter around and on tables, the lack of office space or somewhere suitable to talk, the lack of privacy, the need to be mindful of what is going on ‘over there’, the lack of focus, the surfeit or paucity of evidence or documentation, the presence of paint or food on clothing… I felt oftentimes that my presence was a great threat, or formality, or that I had disturbed somehow the smooth running of the day, no matter how much notice, or how plain the request to speak.

In writing this blog, I am brought to mind of a whole workforce, who live their lives much as did The Borrowers, the 1950s creation of the author Mary Norton. The Borrowers lived their lives discretely, co-existing side by side with the inhabitants of a large family home, ever mindful not to over-burden those on whom they were dependent and to subsist with a creative use of left-overs and ‘borrowings’.

In my work with providers across the great divide of public, private and third sector, I have been made to feel, at times, relatively insignificant, of little worth to the organization and its workforce. At others, I have been treated as a demi-God, or Goddess perhaps, shown the best room, granted the finest coffee and biscuits, treated with a reverence and respect that has made me feel positively regal. It is easy to be swayed by the perceptions of others, by the response we receive from the impression we give, consciously or otherwise.

Despite all that swishing and swaying, I have a relatively secure and strong sense of my own worth, of my value. That value may not be shared by all whom I meet, but that is no great matter. That confidence, sense of identify, sense of worth, is safe intact within me, for the most part.

I do not see that confidence, that sense of identity, as secure or strong in the early years’ workforce and in its individual members. It is that very compliance, that humble demeanour, I believe, that in part has helped create the context within which it is possible for successive governments to impose, demand and impose yet again, the myriad complex demands of the EYFS, from its more modest starting point of the FSP. For that reason, a move towards the revised consultative EYFS is to be welcomed, but still, I fear, it will take a much stronger collective voice within the workforce, to hold fast to what it believes to be true and to understand what it is, that it believes to be true.

In my Ofqual report, I became fascinated by the mission statements of settings I visited and many that I did not visit.

Our mission is to develop… active and creative minds, a sense of understanding and compassion for others, and the courage to act on thier beliefs. We stress the total development of each child: spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, emotiona and physical. (Mission Statement: Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart)

Those settings with a strong internal sense of their own identity and purpose, were far more likely to assimilate the requirements of the EYFS creatively and with sensitivity – or to request exemption.

By contrast, those settings for whom a strong internal vision was not so apparent, were more likely to regard the EYFS as a didactic, inflexible beast, laying bare their own fragile and tenuous sense of identity. Gulliver, in his land of Lilliput, has captured my imagination here. Aren’t the images of our early editions, sublime?

In an extract from the executive summary of my report from July 2008 I state –

“Those settings and practitioners who have a very strong and clear sense of their own collective identity and puprose, are able to apply the curriculum (FSP) creatively and develop practices in line with their own value systems

Where there is a less secure sense of the settings own values, there is more likely to be a drive to adapt or modify the curriculum and elements of practice, to match as closely as possible, assessment judgements, across the six areas of learning. The FSP in this context is transformed from guidance to a prescribed, didactic curriculum.”

In life, we all need a strong sense of identity, an awareness of what is our place in this world, what are our values, what are the beliefs that may support us in the turbulent sea of life.  Without that safeguard, we are as flotsam and jetsam, swept along with the tide.

For some in our workplace, a healthy self-regard, self-belief and a strong sense of identity would seem essential for survival, for peace of mind. Far rather, we are masters of our own fate, it seems to me. That way some sense of fulfillment lies. Who, after all, wishes to be beholden to the devices and desires of another?

Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish Scholar and Theologian, summed up all that I have wished to say, far more succinctly than I, in the space of a few words thrown together. I have them printed out and placed at various points around my study –

If I am not for myself, who
will be for me?
And if not now, when?

Hillel, Jewish scholar & theologian (30 BC – 9 AD)