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‘You Can’t Grow Roses in Concrete’

Action Research Final Report Signs of Safety English Innovations Project

In mid-2014, Munro, Turnell and Murphy Child Protection Consulting (MTM) succeeded in securing English government innovations funding to work intensively with ten local authorities over eighteen months. The project became known as the Signs of Safety English Innovations Project (referred to in this document as Innovations Project or EIP or the project). Funding was provided to implement Signs of Safety practice in each local authority and to work with each authority in re-designing organisational procedures and functioning to better support this approach in helping children, young people and families. The ten local authorities involved were Brent, Bristol, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Tower Hamlets, Wakefield, West Sussex, and Wokingham. This selection provided a rich mixture of urban and rural areas.

During the life of the project, it was described by some as being about ‘training front line social workers in Signs of Safety’. This misinformed observation illustrates the tendency to assume that improvement in children’s services is all about training that changes how front line staff deliver services to children, young people and families. While the nature and quality of services delivered to families are indeed an acid test of children’s service reform, the Munro Review of Child Protection (2011) demonstrated clearly that service delivery is strongly shaped by organisational culture, leadership and procedure. The Munro Review described how, over the years in the English system, reform efforts that had been intended to improve front line practice had, gradually and inadvertently, created a defensive compliance culture where anxiety was high, process took precedence over content, and social workers were increasingly limited in their time and flexibility to engage well with families (Munro, 2011). These developments create ‘latent conditions for error’ (Reason, 1990), resulting in organisational conditions where mistakes are more likely be made. For example, a rushed interview with a family to meet a prescribed timescale can lead to a poor assessment of a child’s safety and wellbeing; the supervisor whose priority is checking for process compliance may fail to notice the inadequacy of the assessment, and subsequent planning may miss significant problems in the child’s life.

The quality of the service that families receive is influenced so strongly by the organisation and its work environment that reforms cannot succeed if they focus only on improving the skill of front line practitioners. Creating positive practice improvements requires whole system organisational change that embeds the core disciplines and principles of Signs of Safety in the organisation’s culture and practices. Where leaders believe a Signs of Safety implementation need involve only front line staff, and where managers continue to give priority to scrutinising process compliance, managers will not play their necessary part in creating a culture where critical reflection is promoted and engagement with families is prioritised. In reality, this is no implementation at all; it is more likely to escalate pessimism about the approach and staff frustration that, while they are being asked to work collaboratively and reflectively with families, the organisation’s anxiety-driven focus on compliance and procedure remains unchanged. In an unsupportive climate, front line change will slowly atrophy as it is squeezed out by the pressures to achieve conflicting goals. This, then, is the meaning of the report’s title You Can’t Grow Roses In Concrete.

The Signs of Safety Innovations Project has sought to help local authorities achieve a fundamental shift in their functioning and assist them to move from the fearful compliance culture described in the Munro Review to a learning culture where all in the organisation have a focus on the wellbeing and safety of children and young people, and where Signs of Safety is the overarching framework for how the work is done. To achieve this, changes have been needed, for instance, in procedures, policy documents, forms workers use and how they are used to focus practice, quality assurance and the IT system. Less tangible factors were also addressed, what Peter Senge (1990) called ‘soft’ factors like organisational priorities, management of the inherent uncertainty in the work, and the sense workers have about whether leadership supports them and understands their challenges.

Since the project focused on whole system change and organisational alignment, it was critical to have corporate support for the reforms from elected council members and also from the senior children’s services leaders. This was secured as a key criterion for participation in the project. In finding participants, it was also important to MTM that there was diversity among the participating authorities, including a spread from small to large, urban to rural, and other significant differences. Some were already using Signs of Safety in work with families to some extent; others had no experience at all. Some had ‘good’ Ofsted inspections ratings; others were ‘inadequate’. In addition to the ‘whole system, whole service’ focus, as the project progressed the local authorities chose different priorities. For example, some extended the use of Signs of Safety to early help services, some focused on the QA system, and some focused on the front door to conferencing. This points to the reality that there was no uniform journey that every local authority followed over the eighteen months. At the same time, senior leaders reported that bringing the leadership teams together from all the local authorities every two months and using other mechanisms to continuously share developments, struggles and successes created a learning community among the ten authorities that was energising for all.