The government’s plans to reform social work have been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee which has stated that the Department for Education lacks a ‘credible plan’ to improve child protection.
Too little has been done to improve children’s services since Eileen Munro published a report following an inquiry into the child protection system calling for reform, the PAC says.
“In 2011, the Munro review on improving the child protection system was published. But progress on improving help and protection services for children has been too slow and six years later only 23% of services are judged by Ofsted as Good. By no standards can this be seen as an improvement,” says the report.
“The Department seemed to us worryingly complacent that nothing can be done to improve services more quickly. The Department’s newly stated ambition to improve services by 2020 is welcome but the Department lacks a credible plan for how and by when it will make a difference and ensure that local authorities are intervening effectively to make a difference to these children’s lives,” it adds.
Variability in services leaves children at risk of harm
The PAC highlights that in 2014–15, local authorities accepted 635,600 requests for services to be provided by children’s social care because of concerns about a child’s welfare. The total number of children in need of help or protection across the year was over 780,000.
During the same time frame, 62,200 children became the subject of a plan and over the past 10 years, the rate of children starting on plans has risen by 94%.
However, six years after the Munro review the DfE still has no evidence on what works, the PAC warns. The Department has announced that it plans to open a What Works centre but not until 2017 at the earliest and such a centre had not been set up before because “best practice has not been there to be mined and disseminated”.
Only 23% of local authorities are judged to provide Good services by Ofsted, which means there is limited evidence of good practice across the system. There is also limited capacity for good authorities to support those that need to improve. The Department has also set up the Innovation Programme and the Partners in Practice initiative to help identify, evaluate and share good practice but the Department has not yet fully evaluated either Programme.
“We were staggered that the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services told us that he believed that the golden age of social work had been in the early 1980s when evidence of serious and systemic abuses from that era is evident,” the PAC report warns.
In 2016, the Department acknowledged that the quality of work with children and families was still too inconsistent and published new plans to ensure that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality care and support by 2020.
The PAC concludes that variability in the quality and consistency of help and protection services is leaving children at risk of harm.
DfE ‘lacks a credible plan’
Annual spending per child in need ranges from £340 in one local authority to almost £5,000 in another, and there is no relationship between the quality of services, as assessed by Ofsted, and the amount spent by local authorities. Locally, the thresholds to access services are not always well understood or applied and they can be set too high, or too low, leading to inappropriate referrals or leaving children at risk.
The rates of re-referrals to children’s social care in 2014–15 ranged from 6% to 46% across England and children with repeat child protection plans varied from 3% to 44%. There are also particular concerns that children with disabilities are not getting the support they need as protecting, rather than helping, children can be a priority locally.
In its conclusion, the committee also states that the DfE lacks a credible plan for improving the system by 2020. Despite its ambition to improve services by 2020, the Department has “few plausible plans to achieve this and only a high level, but undefined, target to reduce the number of local authorities failing to protect children”.
The PAC slams the Department’s awareness of the scale of the challenge as “frustratingly vague”, and more reliant on guesswork rather than informed quantification.
“Child protection is, according to the Department, its most important area of responsibility, yet the senior official in the Department responsible for children’s services does not work on the area full-time,” the report points out.
The DfE is ‘far too complacent’
The Public Accounts Committee also highlights that the Department relies solely on Ofsted inspections to measure the quality of local authority services. While Ofsted had planned to complete its current inspection cycle of children’s services by the end of 2016, this goal has now slipped until the end of 2017. This means some local authorities have not been inspected since 2011 and the Department therefore only has partial information on the quality of services across the whole system. Yet it says that the DfE was content not to challenge Ofsted on speeding up the inspection process despite Ofsted’s Chief Inspector telling the previous Committee that he would be quite happy to inspect children’s services on a more regular basis, should he be asked to do so by the Department.
The Department also allows problems with services to go too far before it intervenes, the PAC warns, as it only intervenes when Ofsted judges that the authority’s services are Inadequate because the authority has failed to protect children or left them at risk. The PAC says this approach is “not good enough” and “shows that the Department is far too complacent”.
“Ofsted’s inspections are not data-led or risk-based, even though the Department holds information which might indicate difficulties in delivering local services,” the committee adds. “The Department does not use its workforce information, or other lead indicators it has been collecting, such as on re-referral rates and repeat child protection plans, to anticipate problems and intervene before services fail.”
The PAC also warns that the Department has not done enough to attract sufficient people to the social work profession. Despite some excellent practice, there is a problem with the competency and capability of too many social workers and not enough good people to help improve services faster. The Department estimates that at least a third of local authorities need to improve their social workforce at all levels.
The Committee also highlights how the DfE mishandled a clear conflict of interest after appointing the Chief Social Worker who, prior to her appointment, was a director and shareholder in a company called Morning Lane Associates. Prior to her appointment the company had no contracts with the Department but has since won contracts worth around £2.9 million. The Chief Social Worker made it quite clear that she had a conflict of interest with Morning Lane Associates so sold her shares and resigned as a Director of the company before taking up post at the Department in 2013. The Department accepts that its subsequent management of this conflict was not good enough and would need to be better next time.
Improvements are ‘woefully overdue’
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said: “Government complacency over improving children's services must end now.
“There are nearly 800,000 children in need of help or protection every year—children who for far too long have been let down by the support available.
“It is completely unacceptable that, six years after the launch of a major review of child protection services, so little progress has been made.
“Government has now set itself a target of 2020 to transform the system, a time frame which better serves Whitehall than it does vulnerable young people in need of help.
“Even then there is a serious risk of past mistakes being repeated. For change to be effective it must be based on evidence of what works, a point Government accepts but has yet to act on properly,” she added.
The report recommends that the Department should:
- Set out for the Committee, by March 2017, how it will ensure all children have equal access to high-quality services.
- Examine whether children with disabilities should have a different pathway of support unless there is clear evidence that child protection is an issue.
- Set out detailed plans for how it will work with local authorities to transform services by 2020.
- Work with Ofsted and set out for the Committee by March 2017 what steps it will take to get more timely assurance on the quality of children’s services.
- Speed up its use of leading indicators to intervene in local authorities before they fail.
- Set out its plans for evaluation, dissemination and embedding good practice.
- Set out how it will attract more high calibre people to social work and how it will ensure that training and assessment is relevant to their work.
- Write to the PAC by the end of March 2017 setting out how it has changed its procedures, what the agreed constraints are on the Chief Social Worker’s dealings with Morning Lane Associates and how it will manage future conflicts of interest.
“There is much at stake here and by the Spring I will expect the Department for Education to provide us with clear plans to drive the improvements that are woefully overdue,” Ms Hillier added.
Year on year funding falls
Dr Ruth Allen, Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the Association had previously raised concerns about the lack of a national strategy to enable improvement across all local authorities.
“We are concerned that the systemic approach to change, the rejection of bureaucratisation and the call for a return to professional, judgement-led social work outlined so well in the Munro report of 2010 is being misinterpreted – or misused by the DfE to justify their approach. 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.”
“Munro’s report may also be being misused to deflect attention from the underlying issues of worsening family problems in some areas, such as increases in poverty and deprivation, which are the social determinants of many health and care problems,” she added.
Alison Michalska, the Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Our work in this area is incredibly complex and frequently misunderstood. A single worded judgement delivered by Ofsted cannot capture this complexity nor the fact that demand for these critical services continues to grow year-on-year whilst funding falls.
“As leaders of children’s services we are committed to providing high quality services in our own authority areas and supporting our colleagues to improve, there’s much evidence of innovative and collaborative work taking place within the sector to ensure that services effectively meet the needs of local residents when resources are scarce.
“There is more that central government can do and this report highlights a number of actions that would assist with this aim, including the development of the new ‘what works centre’ in children’s social care to identify and embed good practice across the country and the systematic sharing of learning from the Innovation Programme and Partners in Practice Programme,” she concluded.