The children who come to the attention of social care are the most vulnerable in our society. They deserve the highest standards, and yet there is still too much provision that is inadequate.
Under a new Ofsted framework, although many have started showing improvements, the proportion of authorities judged inadequate has risen by five percentage points. One in five local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) is failing to meet their statutory obligations and provide the necessary oversight and challenge to succeed.
Launching the report, Sir Michael Wishaw, Ofsted, said: “Today’s report finds that three out of four local authorities inspected under the SIF– the single inspection framework – are rated less than good for their overall effectiveness. One in four authorities, 21 in total, is judged as inadequate. This is simply unacceptable.”
So what’s happening? Is it all bad?
Between 2010 and 2014, the population aged 0 to 17 in England grew by around 4.9% (550,000). The number of children in care has grown with it. Whilst the proportion of children in care when compared to the total child population was roughly constant for the last six years, the referral rate does rise when stories hit the headlines.
While the overall number of children on child protection plans has increased 16% since 2011, the number of children over the age of 16 on plans has increased by 54%.1. Following a trend of decreasing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children looked after since 2009 (the figure peaked at 3,880) there was a sharp increase of 30% between 2014 and 2015. Of the 15,270 children looked after over the age of 16 at 31 March 2015, 1,970 (13%) are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.2
Eight per cent of children looked after are in children’s homes: around 6,000 across England at any given time at a cost of around £1 billion.
Referral numbers a local authority receives range from two to over 1,600 per month. (Two thirds of authorities receive between 100 and 500 referrals on average.) Many calls don’t lead to referral, but all must be acted upon.
Services are under pressures in line with cuts to local authority budgets with many non-statutory services for children reduced ‘considerably – local authority spending on children’s centres and early years reduced by 38% ( £538 million) and spending on youth services reduced by 53% (£623 million) since 2011.
The rest of the findings were, it has to be said, fairly basic :
- Leaders play a key role and need to support their staff well: “a culture of openness and transparency means that social workers feel more responsible, as well as more able to reflect.”
- A disproportionate amount of ‘looked after’ children fail to gain five GCSEs at grades A* to C (including English and maths). Many leave care not in education, employment or training as young adults; and many have emotional and mental health issues. This is often down to their circumstances when coming into care, Foster carers and four out of five children’s homes do well in ensuring better outcomes. Local authorities often fail to stick with care leavers for long enough and support for the children is too variable.
- Seven of 87 local authorities were found to be outstanding for leadership, management and governance, and a further 20 of 87 found to be good, Which leaves 60 to improve – prioritising children’s services, providing high levels of support and scrutiny to senior managers and social workers, have ambitions for children and young people in their area, and support service improvement. Ofsted suggests that elected members and senior leaders must act like ‘pushy parents’ on behalf of ‘looked after. children, always asking ‘is this good enough for my child?’
- What does good like? Childcare is prioritised, and workload is well managed. Workers are well supported.
- There needs to be co-ordination between multiple agencies, all working together effectively.
- Help and protection is inadequate in a high proportion of local authorities judged inadequate. Children and young people frequently experience too many changes of social worker; social worker’s visits to children are often not undertaken within agreed timescales and children were not always seen alone; assessments – if done at all – take too long to complete and often lack analysis and don’t lead to appropriate focused help; plans were subject to drift and delay; case loads were excessive; and there are management failures.
- When it comes to older children, analysis of serious cases showed agencies focus on young people’s challenging behaviours, rather than trying to understand and/or support. Professionals sometimes prioritise younger children and misunderstand the the risks that older children face, seeing them as more resilient than younger children and assuming they are freely making ‘life choices’ rather than being subject to harm such as sexual exploitation.
- Children missing from home, care and school remain a concern. Many local authorities fail understand the reasons why children go missing and help prevent it in future. (We are talking about hundreds of children each week, here).
- Adoption is the most positively judged area of social care practice in local authorities – social workers have excelled at finding and supporting the right families, with “high quality and timely preparation and work with the courts”.
- For many children, becoming ‘looked after’ means experiencing things that other children may take for granted, like regular, nutritious meals, having pets or going on holiday.
With the quality of children’s care homes consistently improving, and fostering services mostly proving excellent, this is a bright spot to end on.
Reference: The report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2016: Social Care. Sir Michael Wishaw, Ofsted, June 28, 2016