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‘Unacceptably slow’ reforms leaving children at risk, warn MPs

Child protection services are failing to show improvement despite promises from the Department for Education (DfE) to deliver reforms, leaving many children at risk of harm, the Public Accounts Committee has argued in a new report.

The DfE admitted that child protection services weren’t good enough in 2010, when it commissioned the Munro Review. However, just 23% of council children’s services were rated as ‘good’ in the latest Ofsted reports for help and protection, which MPs said meant there was limited evidence of what constitutes good practice, and few services capable of supporting those who needed to improve.

Different local authorities had widely different quality of outcomes. In some areas, the proportion of children being re-referred to services after an initial contact was as high as 46%, while in others, it was just 6%.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “It is completely unacceptable that, six years after the launch of a major review of child protection services, so little progress has been made.”

The DfE has now set a target of further improvements by 2020. However, MPs criticised the department for having “few plausible plans” to achieve this beyond a target of reducing an unspecified number of local authorities that are failing to protect children, and a “frustratingly vague” understanding of the scale of the problem.

Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, insisted that reforms to child protection had been “largely removed from local government” and “increasingly centralised” in recent years.

He added that it was “vital” that the DfE’s new initiatives were “evaluated to check whether they are doing a better job of looking after vulnerable children”.

Dr Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, argued that the Munro review could even be “misused” to justify a lack of government oversight of children’s services and overlooking the impact of an increase in poverty on families.

“A lack of sector-wide, inclusive planning, the undermining of universal legal provisions for children and piecemeal, selective approaches to improvement leaves many social care departments without the right resources and leaves many professionals confused and demoralised,” she said.

Ofsted’s target of inspecting all local authorities has now slipped from 2016 to 2017. The PAC criticised the DfE for not pressuring Ofsted to speed up the pace of inspections, despite Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw saying the regulator would be happy to take on more work.

The government does not intervene in local authorities until they are rated as ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted, which the PAC pointed out was too late for the children in need of help.

Cllr Watts called on Ofsted to “play a far more active role in supporting improvement” and stop using one-word ratings for something as complex as children’s services.

By March 2017, the PAC recommended that the DfE should set out how it will ensure minimum standards for local authorities, get more timely assurance on the quality of children’s services, and monitor services in real time instead of waiting until they fail.

This should be followed by detailed year-on-year plans, including a timetable and resources, on how it will meet the 2020 goals.

Cllr Watts also warned that local authorities would need sufficient resources to meet a huge increase in demand, instead of the current budget cuts.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services recently said that they risk meeting a “tipping point” after finding that contacts have increased by 53% since 2007.

A DfE spokesperson admitted that the systematic reforms would “take time”, but denied that there was no strategy in place for improving services.

They said the ‘Putting Children First’ strategy, published in July, set out “a clear programme of action”.

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