Ofsted's annual report reveals an improvement in children's services, but Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s National Director for Social Care, asks how far can an already stretched sector bend before it breaks?
The proportion of local authorities judged as inadequate has decreased considerably, from 22% to 12%, the annual Ofsted review has revealed.
The overall effectiveness of local authorities children’s services continues to improve nationally, the Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2018/19 has found.
Currently, 48% of local authorities are judged good or outstanding, while 38% require improvement to be good and 12% are inadequate.
The annual report found that in total, 54 local authorities received an ILACS inspection (Inspection of Local Authority Children's Services) in 2018-19, with half improving their overall judgements and just over a quarter remaining the same. Of the 54 local authorities inspected, six were judged outstanding, 19 good, 20 requires improvement to be good and nine inadequate.
The annual report found that 11 local authorities previously judged inadequate were inspected in this year, all improving at this inspection. Three (Barnet, Bromley and Tower Hamlets) improved by two grades, to good. The remaining eight improved by one grade, to requires improvement to be good.
Significant financial pressures
President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services Rachel Dickinson said: "Ofsted’s annual report is clear that the overall effectiveness of local authority children’s services up and down the country continues to improve. Currently, 86% of local authorities are judged as outstanding, good or requires improvement to be good and the overall proportion of local authorities judged as inadequate has decreased considerably, from 22% to 12%. Every council that was re-inspected last year has improved too. This is good news for children and their families and it’s important that the hard work and dedication of staff up and down the country is recognised."
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s National Director for Social Care, said: "Our latest annual overview reports an increasingly effective response to the most vulnerable children. Almost half of local authorities inspected last year are now either good or better. All the local authorities that we re-inspected this year improved too. Put another way, that’s some 860 thousand more children living within good and outstanding authorities, and around 1.3 million fewer children living in areas of inadequacy.
"This really is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Directors of Children’s Services, social workers and other staff up and down the country.
"That’s not to say that the sector isn’t facing significant challenges. In our last Annual Report, we spoke about the challenging financial context for social care. This shows no sign of abating.
"The pressure to meet the needs of the care population, along with reductions in local government funding, mean that local authorities are spending an increasing proportion of their budgets on children in need of help, protection and care. There is little left for early help and prevention and, as I’ve said before, this can only be storing up trouble for the future.
"That we’ve seen these improvements amid a difficult financial climate makes the achievements all the more impressive. But it also raises difficult questions about how far an already stretched sector can bend before it breaks," added Ms Stanley.
Cause for concern
There are almost 12 million children and young people aged under 18 in England. Across the 151 English local authorities, children’s services support around 400,000 children in need each year. There are more than 78,000 children are children in care. The number of children in care has increased by 12% since 2015, and by 4% since 2018.
The majority - 72 per cent - of children in care live in foster care and most of these placements are arranged through and overseen by the local authorities. However, as well as inspecting the local authority children’s services, through the ILACS framework, Ofsted also inspects and/or regulates most of the providers of placements for children in care.
There are over 3,000 social care providers, including providers of residential accommodation in boarding schools and further education colleges.
Almost 3,500 inspections and visits to social care providers were carried out during 2018-19. Of the 2,570 full inspections in 2018/19, 19% resulted in an outstanding judgement, 58% in a good judgement, 17% in a requires improvement to be good judgement and 6% in an inadequate judgement. At the end of 2018/19, 84% of all inspected providers were judged good or outstanding at their most recent full inspection, the same as at the end of 2017/18.
Furthermore, there are 14 secure children’s homes in England with 13 being run by local authorities and one being run by a charity.
The number of secure children's homes judged good or outstanding has dropped this year, from 10 last year to eight. In the same period, the number judged inadequate has increased, from one to four and this shift in the overall effectiveness of SCHs was described by Ofsted as "a cause for concern".
Children placed out of borough
Common themes across these inadequate judgements include weaknesses in leadership and management, especially ineffective oversight and monitoring systems, difficulties in recruiting, retaining and developing staff, poor record-keeping of control, discipline and restraint and a lack of appropriately detailed risk assessments for some children.
All three Secure Training Centres are currently judged requires improvement to be good, which is the same as last year. A new inspection framework was introduced for STCs in March 2019, to have a sharpened focus on the experiences of children. Ofsted also introduced additional inspection activity for STCs judged inadequate. Although there have been some small improvements, STCs continue to be a concern as a result of high levels of violence, risks to the safety of children and staff and the levels of staff skill and knowledge to care appropriately for the children.
The report found that overall, numbers of providers and places are increasing, although not always in line with the increase in numbers of children in care. The number of children’s homes continues to rise, with a 6% increase in the number of homes and a 1% increase in the number of beds from August 2018. This continues a pattern over the last three years of the number of homes increasing at a faster rate than places.
However, these increases are not spread evenly across the country. Whereas there was a large increase of 60 homes in the North West, the South East was the only region to see a decrease of nine homes.
The uneven distribution of children’s homes around England can mean that some children are placed in children’s homes far from their original home. While in some circumstances, this can be wholly appropriate as part of the child’s care plan, for others, it is an area of concern, the report says.
Around half of all children living in children’s homes are placed more than 20 miles from home and around a quarter of all children living in children’s homes are placed more than 50 miles from home. Around 60% of children were living outside their local authority on 31 March 2018 and on average these children lived 53 miles from their home compared with 10 miles for children living within their local authority.
This was quite consistent across the local authorities, with the majority (121) placing half or more children outside their borough. Some smaller groups of children lived much further from their original home. Around 9% of children were placed 100 or more miles from their original home and 70 of these children were placed more than 200 miles away. This was more likely for children from London or the South West.
National attention and solutions
Rachel Dickinson, ADCS president, said: "We are similarly concerned about the sufficiency of children’s homes, the geographical mismatch between the location of homes and need as well as the standard of some secure training centres (STCs) which support some of our most vulnerable children and young people. Many of these issues are out of the control of local authorities and require national attention and solutions. I note with sadness that the most recent inspection of Medway STC resulted in an inadequate judgement."
Although a large proportion of providers are children’s homes, 72% of children in care live with foster parents. The number of approved fostering households in 2018–19 has increased by 2% since 2017–18, to 44,500 which Ofsted says is "a welcome change" after falling numbers of households since 2015–16. The number of places has also increased, to 88,370 as at 31 March 2019, a 1% increase from 31 March 2018. However, the DfE has noted that the number of children in care increased by 4% from 2018 to 2019, suggesting that the increase in places may struggle to keep
pace with the increase in need.
The report also warned that local authority children’s services continue to endure significant financial pressures. Challenges across children’s services are underpinned by a chronic lack of funding, set against increasing demand.
ADCS president Rachel Dickinson said: "ADCS will continue to speak loudly and clearly about the significant pressures facing the vital services we lead and deliver which threaten the good progress made to date. I was pleased to see that the challenges we face from rapidly increasing demands and reducing resources have been acknowledged by both HMCI, Amanda Spielman, and Ofsted’s National Director, Social Care, Yvette Stanley. In a commentary, Spielman notes that: “Tightened budgets have led to an understandable focus of resources on children in need of help and protection…However, a reduced focus on preventative work may in the longer term be more expensive…” ADCS has repeatedly urged the government to recognise the benefits of proper and sustainable funding for children’s services over small, one off pots of funding for some local areas but not others. Some upfront investment would be needed, but it would enable local authorities to invest in both statutory children’s services as well as early help. An approach that will pay off over time in both human and financial terms."
"The report contains some good news, particularly in relation to improvement in local authority children’s services, but I echo Stanley’s concerns that it also “raises difficult questions about how far an already stretched sector can bend before it breaks.” The government should not gamble with children’s outcomes and life chances by not funding the vital services they rely on properly; children’s services should not be a blue light service. Next month’s budget is an opportunity for the Treasury to show that children are as much a priority as railways, trade and hospitals," she added.
Cllr Judith Blake from the Local government Association added: "Ofsted has rightly recognised the pressure councils are under to ensure children are getting the best support. The number of children in care is rising every year, in particular amongst older children who are more likely to require accommodation in children’s homes. However, shortfalls in funding for children’s services are making it incredibly difficult to develop and maintain the right provision locally that meets the needs of young people."
“Councils want to work with the government to ensure they fulfil their promise to review the care system to understand these pressures along with sustainable funding so the right homes are available for all children in the right place whatever their needs," she concluded.
The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2018/19