Government urged to reform new inspection regime

The government has been urged to scrap the annual assessment of English local authorities, after a survey found significant concerns about “bureaucratic” performance management systems among children’s services leaders.

The report, based on a survey of 82 council children’s services departments, called for the new comprehensive area assessment, due to be introduced in April, to be applied every three years, rather than annually, for all but the “small minority” of poor performers.

It also called for Ofsted to reconsider its plan to produce a performance profile of local authorities, to inform the CAA, that would be updated every quarter. It said this would lock authorities into a “cycle” of responding to the demands of inspectors, diverting resources from service improvements.

The study was produced by the Children’s Services Network, part of the Local Government Information Unit think-tank, and the Performance Information Reference Group in Education and Children’s Services (Pirge).

Local priorities

Respondents, half of whom were children’s services directors, criticised the implementation of recent reforms designed to remove bureaucratic burdens from councils, enabling them to focus on local priorities.

These included the establishment of a slimmed down set of 198 national performance indicators for councils, against which authorities would be assessed each year, and the establishment of local area agreements.

Under these, councils and their partners set 35 of the 198 as priority targets based on local circumstances, after negotiations with regional government offices last year.

Teenage pregnancies

However, 71% of those questioned said they experienced pressure from government offices to choose targets based on government priorities rather than local needs, such as measures to cut teenage pregnancies and the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training.

More than four in 10 said they were dissatisfied with the national indicator set, with more than half saying it did not provide a “reliable and robust means of judging performance”.

Besides calling for the CAA to be carried out every three years, the report said inspectors should focus on identifying and disseminating good practice, while a comprehensive peer review process should be set up so councils can help each other.

Baby P

The report comes with the assessment process for children’s services under scrutiny, due to the “good” rating received by Haringey Council in its 2007 annual performance assessment, months after Baby P died while on its child protection register.

After a joint area review of safeguarding in Haringey, sparked by the Baby P case, found significant failings in December 2008, children’s secretary Ed Balls backed Ofsted plans to introduce annual safeguarding checks on councils.

The survey of children’s services departments mainly took place before the Baby P scandal broke, but the report said its findings should inform any changes to inspections implemented in light of the case.

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