Hold on to your hats today, because Charlie’s here!
We are honoured to introduce you to our new columnist, highly experienced child psychologist, Charlie Mead. Charlie was one of the youngest Head Teachers in the West Midlands, working with excluded young people and those at risk of failure. He went on to become both a child and educational psychologist in Birmingham before returning to work in one of the largest SEBD schools in Europe. He is now an independent practitioner and spends most of his time developing nurture groups for children and parents in mainstream secondary schools as well as proving practical support for children in care homes – and sometimes both practices combine!
We met Charlie at a conference in mid 2012 and he blew our minds with his descriptions of children in care AKA “Looked After Children.” I wrote about it at the time and to have Charlie as a columnist will bring a new dimension to SNJ.
His columns will focus on children who have been abandoned by the state in various ways and the part professionals play in allowing this to happen and what we can all do to prevent it happening. He welcomes any comments and hopes you can contribute to the growing debate about how best to protect and deliver the highest quality service to the most vulnerable children in Britain today.
Charlie’s, honestly-held views are hard-hitting and forthright and come from the first-hand knowledge of someone who knows the truth behind the statistics.
Birmingham – a personal perspective
I have been asked to write a column for SNJ. In a weak moment I agreed. Then a timely reminder that I was being asked to write by parents, for other parents – and it all started to fall into place. In this and coming months I will attempt to give you some idea of what has and still is going wrong with the child care system in Britain. How the most vulnerable children in the country are neglected by the organisations and authorities that should be looking after them. Local and Central government, agencies such as Ofsted and the Quality Care Commission, schools, police, charities and local factions in the community all play a part in failing children-in-care, especially those placed in children’s homes.
In this first column, I’ll explain my view of where it has gone wrong for children in care and those at risk in Birmingham – a personal as well as professional view. Birmingham is a large, complex city and has many admirable attributes, however the current state of its children services is not one of them. Even here though, there are islands of good practice which are masked by a history of ineffectual management, where the corporate brand of Birmingham has been seen as more important than the needs of individuals. I am critical of the way Birmingham has worked over the past 30 years, but I also recognise the efforts of the individuals who have fought against authority and bureaucracy to ensure the safety and success of children across the city.
In recent years I have been privileged to address a number of conferences with a range of audiences – psychologists, care workers, teachers and therapists. However, the most influential practitioners on my own work have been parents of children with special needs and children in care. They inform my daily approach and attitude to the agencies and government departments we all have to deal with and with whom I have to co-operate in order to achieve the most basic of rights for children.
Health, social and educational systems in the UK are supposed to put the child at the centre of practice. Children should be able to feel safe, to be given shelter and have the right to education and these should be provided by the professionals that parents are supposed to trust to enable this to happen.
So why has it now fallen to parents and carers to fight for the rights of their own children? Why are professionals – social workers, teachers and doctors – reluctant or even afraid to criticise or evaluate their own practice and that of the people who employ them, especially in the state sector? Parents have to fight against a tide of indifference and ignorance from those who have been given the responsibility to provide for their children.
Those with special needs or who are in care are being ignored, abandoned and abused by a system that is fast becoming dysfunctional and the perpetrators are exactly the people who should be providing the children with the care, education and health services that are enshrined in law.
Birmingham Children’s Services has been rated as inadequate since 2009. The head of Ofsted has branded Birmingham a ‘national disgrace’ and Michael Gove has threatened to take over the service from the local authority. So we have the usual suspects of national government, government appointed regulators and local authority services clashing in the stratosphere, while the people on the ground – especially the children – continue to suffer. The high profile deaths of Khyra Ishaq and Keanu Williams in the past five years have highlighted Birmingham’s inadequacies, but they mask the deeper and wider malaise that I believe has existed in Birmingham for decades. Other children have died in the care of Birmingham social services since the 1980s – some missed by the media but known to those working in the sector.
It is nearly 28 years since I started working in Birmingham and I still spend a considerable amount of my time working with and for the children of the West Midlands. I have been fortunate to have worked in many settings with professionals from Education, Social Services and Health – and even all together in attempts to create that myth – the functional multi-agency group.
It is my belief that Family and Children’s Services have failed in Birmingham because it became multi-agency with a head that came from the Education Department. He was unfortunate enough to have replaced the previous inspirational leadership, who turned Birmingham back into an educational force. They believed in innovative, co-operative working and multi-agency work so that the best could be achieved for all children in the city. This was then promoted by national and local government across the country, with foreseeable but undesirable effects.
The problem in Birmingham was that decision makers did not reckon with the disorganisation that was social services in the mid-90s. Combining a dysfunctional department with a successful one, but with no experience of effective social work management, was never going to work for the newly appointed head of children’s services and so it has proved, in my opinion, over the past 15 years. As someone who has worked on the inside, it is my view that Birmingham has been unable to demonstrate that it can safeguard some of its children at risk and has been unable to operate a system that consistently puts children first or to be open and honest about its performance.
Politicians and practitioners have all made excuses about failings in the city. It is the largest local authority in Europe and the levels of bureaucracy are complex and accountability is hard to place. Elected representatives from all parties have failed to deliver their most simple pledges in the face of criticism and the children are lost in a Gordian knot of buck-passing and incompetence.
In my opinion, Birmingham is also a council that will not allow criticism from within; where social workers are afraid to talk to the media and where the media are not allowed access to the services who are justifiably criticised by families whose children have been let down or even died in council care.
These responses are symptomatic of a further malaise within Birmingham. It has been publicly criticised over allegations of bullying of staff, especially if they express views different to managers and councillors or challenge the orthodoxy of the time. This was the case in the 1990s when, as a newly qualified Ed Psych, it was clear that innovation was seen as dissent. I don’t believe the situation has changed in 20 years; politicians and managers have not addressed the problem. It is clear to me that this is the reason why staff do not speak out about poor working practices for fear of losing their jobs and a major reason why children have died unnecessarily and will continue to do so.
I have seen this working environment lead to instances where children-in-care who’ve been neglected, exploited or refused an education, have not been heard. It is also leads to an inability of professionals and their managers to take responsibility for their actions. With expectations that low – with that lack of trust of staff, it is not surprising that Birmingham has been pilloried. And yet senior decision-makers still seem to be in denial about accepting responsibility for this situation. An example might be the situation where the current head of children’s services is blaming Ofsted and the government for staff recruitment difficulties – as though it had nothing to do with their past failures and inability to safeguard some of their children.
Multi-agency work was seen as the panacea to past problems – believing that joined up thinking would solve the dysfunctional sectors of the authority – but in an organisation as large as Birmingham, cross-city co-operative working is seen as alien.
Multi-agency groups have not worked because individual professional groups see them as groups of other individuals – all trained differently, who do not understand each other’s point of view because they are all, individually, right. And everyone else is therefore wrong. This is both a political and organisational dilemma because individuals will have to give up their own power to enable the services that provide for children to succeed. There is an established hierarchy across any group of professionals and this is more true in Birmingham than anywhere else I have worked.
And in my view, the best example of the failure of joined-up thinking was the creation of the children’s services division – the original amalgamation of educational and social services in a city so large that each area, division and pocket of professionals felt they could act autonomously from the centre in whatever direction they were pointed. It was an attractive ideal – it just hasn’t worked.
In Birmingham, children in care have generally been discriminated against, especially amongst head teachers who fear for their school tables and results. Children in care are the single most excluded group from mainstream schools. Social workers are rarely allocated appropriately to the most needy children and have little time to do effective social work when they are.
It is difficult to get access to special educational needs provision for these children with a general acceptance that part-time education will do! There is a general practice among local authority staff that those children in care with complex conditions such as ASD should not be placed in special provision if they have associated behavioural difficulties. To top off the lack of educational expectation for this group of children, it is rare to find a school where the curriculum is matched to the ability of the child.
Birmingham is the pariah of the moment – there have been other authorities in the negative spotlight in the past- and something needs to be done, but I am sure that neither Ofsted nor central government have the answer. After all, it was Birmingham’s ex head of children’s services who was recently sent by Michael Gove to Doncaster to sort out its department!
Some potential solutions
What I have to offer is small beer. It comes from those instances that have proven inspirational in the past 30 years, where success has shone despite all the odds, where individuals have achieved beyond all expectations. The following suggestions are not a blueprint for success, but I offer them as an alternative way of thinking and behaving – maybe changing the lives of some children for the better.
Abandon the idea of uniformity. One size does not fit all and not all professionals can bring the same skills to the service of young people. There is a need to match the skills to needs – not define needs and attempt to meet them. As an Educational Psychologist, I came from a background of working with children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties but was expected to work effectively with young people who were blind, deaf and with profound, multiple learning difficulties. It was possible, but not the best way of enabling those children to succeed or the best use of my time.
Swap the big society for the Small Society. Carve big, under-performing cities like Birmingham up into much smaller administrative units. It happened in London and every other major European city – which is why Birmingham is the largest authority in the continent. Small units, smaller groups of parents and children, smaller groups of professionals. Smaller communities are far more effective and resilient than amorphous administrative units – they are identifiable for their culture, skills and peoples. Yardley is not like Handsworth, Small Heath is not Edgbaston – but all are Birmingham. Give responsibility and control to these areas, not just local area lip service.
Create small units that co-operate. Multi-agency groups can work if they are close to the centre, meet regularly and are accountable to their community-especially the parents who need to use the services available or the children who have no adults to speak for them.
Make staff accountable to parents and children. Teachers, doctors and social workers need opportunities to listen to and act on behalf of their clients. Set up local research groups with non-professionals involved, especially those with a vested interest in improving awareness and investment in specific child related issues.
Fund the child – not the place. Remove the secretive placement panels and decision makers and give the child the funding needed to support them in care and in education. Make the process open and accountable to parents and professionals who make decisions in the best interest of the children.
Guarantee financial and social inputs and outcomes. This should include equal access to education, training and opportunity measured against national norms not the low level norms of children in care. Set hard social and emotional outcomes that can be measured as a means of success for all children, not just educational exam success. There is no reason why value for money – the investment the state makes in children in care – cannot be used as a tool to make the lives of children better.
Planned opportunities. Many children in care have no planned opportunities to achieve over a long term. Many are moved far too often, have many social workers and lose all sense of a future before they get to 16. This is too late. They need consistency and continuity in their lives with plans that are implemented over their time in care – where they are accepted, not rejected.
I am not sure if these suggestions would work on a national scale – but they have worked in parts of Birmingham against many odds. They are a working model used by a few practitioners who tend to buck the system and have an instinctive view of what is right for the children in their care. They are and have been treated with suspicion by the authorities – but they get the job done. Maybe if the authorities adopted some of these practices and truly put the child first then the culture that has caused Birmingham to fail vulnerable children so often can be reversed. Let’s hope so.
“The future is bleak unless we make people in positions of power listen to what we have to say – their understanding of where we are and what we do is woefully lacking. Their ignorance is their defence.” (Clarence Jones)
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