The government plans to introduce a controversial score card system to measure local authority performance under radical adoption reforms published today.
Local authorities will have their performance assessed against three centrally-set key indicators and their scores will be calculated on a three-year average.
The score cards will be updated annually and published online, with the first released in the coming weeks.
The indicators will measure how long it takes for children to move in with adopters, from the time they entered care; what proportion of those children wait longer for adoption than they should, and the time it takes a council to match a child to a family, once the court has decided adoption is the best option.
The much-anticipated adoption action plan will also propose cutting the approval process for new adopters to six months and introducing a national gateway for adoption.
This would be the first point of contact for any prospective adopters, rather than their local authority.
Both are proposals put forward by an expert working group made up of adoptive parents and representatives from councils and voluntary adoption agencies.
“For too long, children in care have been let down by local authorities and the family justice system,” said education secretary Michael Gove. “I believe scorecards will shine a light on which authorities are doing well and which ones need to improve.”
The score cards have already been described as a backwards step by social workers and council leaders.
“Pitching councils against each other through targets and score cards is a gamble that could actually prove detrimental unless it captures the full picture of a lengthy court process and burdensome government regulation,” said Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board.
“We cannot afford to put prospective parents off if their council is wrongly deemed to be underperforming,” he said.
The average score will not reflect changes in placement stability over the three-year period, Simmonds said, warning placements driven by central targets, rather than the needs of children, could be at greater risk of breaking down.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has also accused ministers of sending mixed messages to social workers.
“This government has trumpeted its determination to end pointless bureaucracy that stifles social workers’ ability to make basic decisions about children,” said Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at BASW. “Now it appears to have done a u-turn on its progressive thinking, reverting to formulaic processes and procedures once again.”
Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), appealed to children’s services professionals to draw on the “best practice that we know is widely available in our sector”, adding that it is right councils and their partners are challenged on how they are improving services.
“However, focus on a single indicator, such as speed of decision making, within a small area of the care system, can mask the challenges many of these children face in finding adoptive homes,” Dunkley said.
“Working with the government, directors have made a strong case for more contextual information to be added to the scorecard to add balance and aid understanding of this complexity.”
He added: “Any attempts to improve performance of individual local authorities must take the performance of the wider system into account – without that, there is a limit to what local authorities can achieve.”
Last week, prime minister David Cameron outlined additional proposals to speed up the adoption process.
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