Children’s services ‘still not good enough’ despite improvement promises

Improvement efforts in children’s services have failed to deliver their goals six years after they were introduced, a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has stated.

The Department of Education said it accepted that child protection services were not good enough in 2010, and committed to implementing the Munro Review’s recommendations on children’s services the following year.

However, children’s services are still falling behind, with 23% of local authority children’s services rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, more than any other provider.

Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “Six years have passed since the Department recognised that children's services were not good enough.

“It is extremely disappointing that, after all its efforts, far too many children's services are still not good enough. To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020 the Department will need to inject more energy, pace and determination in delivering on its responsibilities."

The report found that there has been a serious rise in concerns about children’s welfare. In the past 10 years, the rate of enquiries made by local authorities when they believe a child may be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm increased by 124%, and the rate of children starting on child protection plans rose by 94%.

Reconciling variability

In 2014-15, local authorities spent an average of £2,300 on every child in need, a £1,000 increase from the previous year. However, this varied from £340 in one authority to £4,970 in another.

Thresholds for when children needed help also varied between local authorities, leading to concerns that some authorities were either leaving children at risk or intervening unnecessarily.

The number of children in need varied from 291 in 10,000 children to 1,501, and the number of referrals accepted varied from 226 to 1,863.

The NAO said the Department should “set out how it reconciles the variability introduced by local thresholds for help and protection with its goal of all children having equal access to high-quality services”.

Children’s services also suffered from widespread staff shortages. Agency staff made up 16% of social worker posts, rising to an average of 22% in authorities judged inadequate.

The NAO also criticised the Department for not intervening until children’s services are already failing, instead of anticipating potential failures.

The government recently intervened to take away Sandwell children’s services from the council, following similar moves in Birmingham, Rotherham and Slough.

The NAO called on the Department to set out how it will acquire the capacity to transform children’s services by 2020 and consult with Ofsted on how it can secure more timely assurances about the quality of children’s services.

It also recommended using indicators such as the re-referral rates and social worker vacancy rates to predict when an authority is going to fail. In addition, the report said more data was needed on the lives and outcomes of children and their families who have come into contact with children’s services, and on the cost effectiveness of children’s services.

A more active role for Ofsted

Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “One of Ofsted's key purposes is to help providers to improve, yet research commissioned by the LGA last year found that an ‘inadequate' rating by Ofsted actually created an incredibly difficult environment in which to make improvements, with resignations by both councillors and officers, vilification in the media, and an uphill battle to recruit new social workers thanks to the reputational damage caused.

“We would like to see Ofsted playing a far more active role in supporting improvement, including an inspection framework that recognises something as complex as children's services cannot be reduced to a one-word rating.”

He added: “We can never be complacent when it comes to the safety of children and young people, but we must take care that in our rush to improve, we don't lose sight of the unreported excellence of social workers across the country, whose tough decisions and swift actions are saving children's lives every day."

Developing a ‘what works centre’

Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said that the report’s findings were partly due to the “partial and excessively negative” Ofsted single inspection framework.

However, he added: “It is well known that since 2008 demand for children’s social care has continued to grow with no equivalent growth in budget, placing children’s services in local areas under immense pressure.

“Councils have worked hard to minimise the impact of these pressures on local communities by redesigning and reshaping services to target areas of most need, but still cuts to early help and preventative services have been necessary to balance the books. If this pattern of demand continues to grow the most vulnerable will be left at risk.”

He called on the government to address concerns about children’s services as a matter of urgency, including by developing a ‘what works centre’ to identify national good practice.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Children must be kept safe from harm and since 2010 we have been making ambitious changes to improve our child protection system. We are now taking tough action to drive up standards in children’s services across the country, stepping in when councils aren’t doing well enough and linking them up with better-performing local authorities to share best practice.

“We have also cut red tape so that social workers can spend more time actually supporting families. But we are going further and introducing new laws to strengthen protection for the most vulnerable children and transforming the support available to them, as set out in plans we published this summer.”

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