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Special Report: Child protection services are “unsatisfactory and inconsistent”

National Audit Office slams poor progress made in child protection since Professor Munro’s report

The quality of child protection services nationally is unsatisfactory and inconsistent, the National Audit office has warned.

Unhappy Children Sitting On Floor In Corner At Home

Department for Education initiatives to improve child protection services since the government recognised that worm was needed have not yet come to fruition, the public spending watchdog has revealed.

The NAO analysis has found that:

  • There is a greater demand from children in need help or protection and this is rising.
  • Spending on children’s social work varies widely across England and is not related to quality.
  • Nationally the quality of help and protection for children is unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than just local failure.
  • Children in different parts of the country do not get the same access to help or protection.
  • The Department for Education has no data on outcomes for children who have been in need of help or protection, except for educational outcomes.
  • The Department’s interventions to improve failed local services for children are neither risk-based nor early enough.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 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.”

23% of authorities are rated ‘Good’

In 2010 the Department recognised that child protection services were not good enough and commissioned a review by Professor Munro on how to improve the system for child protection. Most of Munro’s recommendations were accepted and in 2012, the DfE began to publish and collect more information to help local authorities assess their performance. The Department also launched a programme to reform social work, revised statutory guidance, established the first two children’s social care Trusts and provided over £100 million funding for the Innovation Programme, to encourage new approaches and share good practice.

However, Ofsted inspection results are not yet showing a marked improvement. Ofsted has only judged services to help or protect children as ‘Good’ in 23% of the 103 local authorities it has inspected since 2013. The inspectorate has judged 20% of local authorities as ‘Inadequate’. In the year ending 31 March 2015, there was wide variation in the effectiveness of work between local authorities. The rates of re-referrals to children’s social care during the year varied from 6% to 46%; and children with repeat child protection plans varied from 3% to 44%.

Local thresholds for help and protection services should ensure that all children get access to the right help or protection at the right time. However, the National Audit Office found that thresholds were not always well understood or applied by local partners. In Ofsted’s view, some local thresholds were set too high or low leading to inappropriate referrals or children left at risk. In the year ending 31 March 2015 there was variation between local authorities in the rates of referrals accepted, from 226 to 1,863 per 10,000 children and the rates of children in need, from 291 to 1,501 per 10,000 children.

The public watchdog also found that children living in deprived areas are 11 times more likely to have a child protection plan than children living in the most affluent areas of England.

Spending does not equate to better quality

Over the last 10 years, there has been a marked rise in serious cases requiring children to be protected from harm. 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%. The rate of children starting on child protection plans rose by 94%.

In 2014-15, local authorities recorded 635,600 referrals because of concerns about a child’s welfare and 62,200 children became the subject of a plan.

Average spending on a child in need has increased slightly in the past three years. In 2014-15, local authorities reported spending £1.8 billion on children’s social work, 11% more in real terms than in 2012-13. This spending was equivalent to £2,300 per child in need, compared with around £2,200 per child in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

However, the NAO analysis found that average reported spending on children’s social work in 2014-15 ranged from an estimated spend of £340 per child in need in one authority to £4,970 per child in need in another.

Spending does not necessarily equate to better quality services and neither the Department nor authorities understand why spending varies.

The report highlights that while there is good practice across the country, the system for sharing good practice is weak, as recognised by the DfE. Local authorities judged ‘Good’ by Ofsted provide support to those judged as Inadequate. However, given only 24 out of 103 local authorities inspected so far are judged to be ‘Good’, spreading good practice is a challenge, the NAO adds. The DfE has, however, introduced an Innovation Programme and Partners in Practice initiative to develop new models of social work and is planning to introduce a ‘What Works Centre’ for social work.

Intervention is too late

There is little information on outcomes for children who are, or have been, in need of services. The Department measures volumes and timeliness of processes, but has no data on outcomes for children in need, except for educational outcomes. The government and local authorities therefore do not understand which approaches provide the most effective help and protection.

In July 2016 the Department published its plans to transform all children’s services by 2020. The Department’s goal is that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support. The Department acknowledges its role in supporting local accountability by improving transparency but has no formal role in improving services.

However, the Department’s interventions to improve failed local services for children are “neither risk-based nor early enough”. The government only intervenes when Ofsted has already found services to have failed local children. It does not plan to use performance information to anticipate risks of failure, even though Ofsted’s inspection programme means judgements on 32% of authorities are at least three years old. Neither the Department nor the 23% of authorities judged ‘Good’ yet have the capacity and capability to intervene effectively on a wider scale, the NAO reports.

The DfE faces significant challenges in transforming children’s services. However, the report identifies that much transformation is going on across government that could provide lessons for the Department’s reform of children’s services.

“It is critical that the Department learns from practice and mistakes elsewhere,” says the report. “For example, the Youth Justice Board’s improvements to the youth justice system led to a reduction in recorded youth crime.”

Widespread failings

The NAO report concludes by slamming the improvements made to the child protection system since Professor Munro’s report in 2010 as “poor progress”.

“The foundations of a cycle of improvement would involve understanding what works, timely measurement of the quality of protection activity across areas, pointing out poor performance and an effective response that improves services quickly. None of these are yet in place to the extent necessary to improve the services quickly enough,” said the NAO.

The watchdog concedes that while the DfE is not solely responsible for improving “the widespread failings of the system”, it is the only body that can oversee and push systemic change.

“However, even taking into account the challenge of reforming services delivered through local authorities, and the time needed to achieve systemic improvements, so far the outcomes have been disappointing,” said the watchdog. “To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020 the Department will need to step forward and show a sense of urgency and determination in delivering on their responsibilities.”

The report calls on the government to set out how and by when it will have the capacity and capability to transform children’s services by 2020. It should also 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.

In consultation with Ofsted, the DfE should set out how it can secure more timely assurances on the quality of services offered across all local authorities. The government should also develop its intervention regime so that it uses lead indicators, such as re-referral rates, repeat child protection plans and social worker vacancy and agency staff rates, to anticipate and act on failing services before they fail.

The Department should develop better indicators to monitor the lives and outcomes for children and families who are, or have been, in contact with the child protection system, and hold local authorities to account for their performance.

Finally, the report urges the Department to build on its work to improve cost information on services, particularly local authorities’ financial returns so that cost-effectiveness can underpin decisions on practice.

Unreported excellence of social workers

Dave Hill, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, warned that there “is no one-size-fits-all solution” in child protection. He said it was “worrying” that the report identifies that children in some parts of the country are not afforded the same help and protection as in others and said this “must be addressed as a matter of urgency”. Bringing forward the development of the government’s new ‘what works centre’ in children’s social care to embed good practice across the country would contribute to improvements, 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,” said Hill.

“The UK has one of the safest child protection systems in the developed world yet the results of the SIF inspections undertaken to date suggest that the majority of authorities are not yet good enough. This is not credible. We believe this framework does not get to the heart of how well services are working, and, with a single worded judgement it tells a partial and excessively negative story. We have no difficulty being held to public account, and where the evidence is clear that an authority is failing, robust action must be taken to secure rapid improvement,” he added.

Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, highlighted that ocal authority children's services teams in England handled more than two million initial contacts in 2013/14, up 65 per cent from 1.2 million in 2007 and the number of children on child protection plans has increased by more than 60 per cent during the same period. However the backdrop for this increased demand was “significant funding cuts” and he warned that with such a big rise in demand for services, “it is vital that local authorities have the resources they need to keep children and young people safe”.

“"In 2008, 78 per cent of children's services were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. It is notable that this figure has now dropped below 25 per cent, over a period in which child protection reform and improvement has been largely removed from local government and increasingly centralised within Whitehall instead. It's vital to examine how DfE initiatives imposed on local authorities, such as children's services trusts, are evaluated to check whether they are doing a better job of looking after vulnerable children, and use that evidence to develop future initiatives in partnership with councils,” said Watts.

“Finally, it should be noted that thanks to reports from all corners of the community and the hard work of social workers, the police and others, the number of children dying due to homicide or assault has fallen by 69 per cent in England since 1985 and remains in long-term decline. 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,” concluded Watts.

Children in need of help or protection report

 

 

 

 

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