Single-word judgements ‘inappropriate’ for complex children’s services

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2015

Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), talks to PSE about the challenges facing the sector.

Ofsted’s use of single-word judgements for rating council-run children’s services is “inappropriate” and “burdensome”, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has warned.

Speaking to PSE, Alison O’Sullivan, president of ADCS, said she has been “fairly blunt” about the current Single Assessment Framework (SIF) regime, with her organisation calling for current inspections to be stopped.

ADCS, Solace (representing council chief executives and senior directors) and the Local Government Association (LGA) say the burden of inspection in children’s services has not been reduced by the introduction of the SIF, which replaced several separate inspection frameworks.

O’Sullivan said: “We think that SIF could be effectively replaced by a simpler, shorter inspection which checks whether services are safe – complemented by the ability to dive much more deeply into the circumstances in the local authority if concerns were found by that lighter-touch inspection.

“And we would also urge a series of themed inspections to look at particular aspects of work or practice, because that would help establish how well services were doing in emerging areas. It would also inform best practice and help drive improvement.”

She added that talks are now beginning about what will replace SIF, but for the next 18 months the “burdensome arrangement” will continue.

Narrative findings tell the story, single-word judgements don’t

A summary of published SIF reports by Ofsted, available on the ADCS website, shows that of 66 inspections, 34 local authorities were judged to ‘require improvement’, 16 were ‘inadequate’, a further 16 were ‘good’ but no services were ‘outstanding’.

O’Sullivan said: “We feel very strongly about the inappropriateness of a single-word judgement being the outcome from an inspection of an extremely wide and complex set of arrangements.”

Narrative findings from most of the Ofsted reports “describe, in a much richer way, what inspectors found”.

“But to reduce that down to a single-word judgement is wrong,” said O’Sullivan. “The other thing that we are very clear about is that the calibration is wrong. Within the ‘requires improvement’ category there are clearly authorities who are ‘good’ and it is astonishing that Ofsted has not found authorities they judge to be ‘outstanding’. We do believe there is a small number. That is damaging to the reputation of the sector and is not reflective of the range of standards we know are there.”

Spending Review

She added that one of the biggest challenges for service providers is the forthcoming Spending Review “and what that might bring on top of the reductions in funding that local authorities have already experienced”. This was a hot topic at the recent National Children and Adult Services Conference. O’Sullivan called it a “fantastic opportunity” for everyone to come together as the “issues are shared”, and urged more work between local and national government at the political level to resolve policy issues.

She said the need for a “collaborative approach” was “epitomised” by the conference itself, which had representatives from adult services, children’s services, the voluntary sector, local government and Whitehall.

However, ahead of the Spending Review, O’Sullivan noted that directors of children’s services are worried about “whether essential services are going to be adequately funded in the future”.

“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that,” she said.

Rising demand

Demand is being driven by a number of factors, including the often-overlooked fact that the proportion of children in the population is rising, but also that some people have greater needs. There are growing social pressures caused by austerity policies that are “amplifying the connection between deprivation and the need to intervene and protect children”.

O’Sullivan, who is also director for Children and Young People at Kirklees Council, reflected that on top of all of these demands there are new areas of activity where, very reasonably, the public expects services to do more, such as child sexual exploitation and young refugees.

“But what we’ve seen in terms of budget changes over the course of the last Parliament was, overall, a 40% reduction in funding for local authorities,” she said. “That has translated into local decisions over what priorities are. It is true to say that local authorities have done a lot to protect spending for vulnerable children and adults. That is mainly the case. However, these areas are not completely protected and in an environment where demand is rising, that puts significant pressure on those services and it is meaning that some people are having to consider cuts to early intervention and prevention.”

More children in care

O’Sullivan told PSE that children’s services have seen several increases in demand ‘at the front door’ and also for them to intervene.

“We have an overall trend of increased numbers of children subject to child protection plans and increased numbers of children in care,” she said.

“Three times during the last year we have seen the month with the greatest number of applications to the court in care proceedings having been made. That is a sustained not just a short-term effect.”

Discussing the funding issue further, the ADCS president, known to be less outspoken than her predecessor, Alan Wood, said another important factor putting a strain on resources is that the decisions being made in local authorities have not yet taken full effect. She added that “we are only starting to see now” the impact of the implementation of cuts to local authority funding in the previous five-year period, and as that happens “there will, undoubtedly, be greater savings to be found”.

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