A report on the BBC News Website today explains how the Government is going to give local authorities 'scorecards' to measure how well they do on new adoption targets.

I probably shouldn't be amazed that after years and years of target-setting from the previous regime that often didn't account to much, the current lot are heading down the same path.  I probably shouldn't be amazed, but I am.

Have we learned nothing?

It's not that I'm against targets.  Personally I feel that a lot of what is called inefficiency in the public sector is linked to the problem of individual workers not really seeing how what they do matters within the whole organisation and to the public that they are serving.  Targets can help with that.

Also, it's undeniable that some services just haven't been up to scratch.  How can we measure improvement if we don't set measurable outputs and outcomes?

When I was teaching, I set GCSE pupils individualised target grades based on their past and current achievement.  These targets were applied to every piece of work and test they completed and pupils were rewarded for exceeding their target.  There was also a fairly unpleasant consequence for failing to meet the target.

Six months after introducing the scheme, pupils with less ability were increasingly looking at their own grades and how to improve them, and spending less time comparing themselves unfavourably with higher-achieving students.  On the other hand, top ability students could no longer coast along with the minimum effort getting 'B's if their target grades were 'A's.

What I did not do was set a blanket target that applied to all students no matter what their circumstances.  On the other hand, that is exactly what happened to schools.  'Five Good Grades' became the mantra all through my teaching career until I was sick of hearing about it.

And now, we are apparently shocked by the fact that enterprising headteachers have worked out how to achieve the target with the least hassle - get kids to take multi-award so-called 'easy' subjects that will earn them, say, two or three grades at once.  Concentrate on kids on the C-D borderline and ignore those who will never make it, or those who will easily make it.  The result?  Too much invested in 'average' kids and too little invested in weak kids and gifted kids.  Rafts of kids with great GCSE results in Dance, Health & Social Care, etc. but barely literate or numerate.

So, once again, we change the goalposts for schools.  Now, the five good grades must include Maths and English.  Even better, why not consider the English Bacc? - a totally arbitrary collection of so-called 'academic' subjects which must leave arty types (like myself) holding their heads in their hands.

I could go on.

The point is that it's not the idea of setting targets that is bad, it is the total lack of intelligent consideration and forethought that goes into deciding what aspects of a particular activity should form the basis of the targets.

The skewing that occurred within education should easily have been predicted, and if it wasn't, at least lessons should have been learned.  And yet here we are, doing the same thing all over again with Children's Social Care.

The new targets are all about speed.  Get adoptive parents approved more quickly.  Get kids into families more quickly.  Don't let little things like finding an appropriate ethnic match get in your way.

At this point I'm going to have to leave aside the scores of trans-culture adoptees who have spoken up about the difficulties they encountered growing up (including on Radio 4 only this week) because I do personally feel that, on balance, it is better for children to be adopted trans-culturally than to be left in foster homes and institutions if absolutely no appropriate ethnic match can be found.

Instead, let me just say that we live in a country where, according to a recent news report, 20% of adoptions fail - the adopted children end up back in care.  That's one out of every five children that is adopted.  Just take a moment to imagine how devastating that must be for a child who has already suffered so much.

Adopting a child is not all roses and petals.  Even childen adopted very young can later exhibit severe difficulties as a result of their early experiences.  If prospective adopters think that the process of approval is too much like hard work, then they probably shouldn't be taking on the massive challenge of bringing somebody else's child into their home and pledging to love and care for them, whatever happens in the unseeable future.

I'm sure the new targets will speed up the adoption process for parents and children alike.  And believe me, I'm equally certain that there is sometimes unnecessary delay - far be it from me to claim that all is efficiency and velocity at social services.  But what will be the unintended consequences?

Maybe at this point it's too simplistic to say that in the frantic push for speed and action, little thought is being given to maintaining and improving the quality of placements.  Virtually nothing is being said about a programme or plan to increase the number of adopters who are prepared to take on older children, disabled children or sibling groups, and these are the ones who are languishing in the system for years.  It's not difficult to find a family for a cute baby after all.

I can't help feeling that five or ten years down the line we'll be reading stories about tragic failed adoptions where unforseen circumstances in the parents' or childrens' lives have taken their inevitable course; failures that could perhaps have been prevented if enough time had been taken to gather all the necessary information and give enough breathing space to consider the realities of what it means to open your home to a stranger.

So, Mr Cameron, if all you want is to be seen to be doing something in response to a media storm, then go ahead and set your targets, and hope you're voted out before you have to deal with the fallout.


  1. I am just starting to read your blog so I know this comment is late. I am in America and I am not a foster/adoptive parent to an adopted/foster child. I have done some research about this topic for school. I have a degree in Psychology. I agree completely that children need families faster. I understand the goal of reunification but I think it is unfair to keep a child in limbo or continue to send a child back to be traumatized again and again. I think the question has to be asked is that really what is best for the child or the bio family. I also so think blanket laws for situations involving children being removed need to be reevaluated and have flexibility. Great post!


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