The NAO’s analysis of child protection misses the bigger picture

The audit office's report highlights pressures on the system but fails to adequately probe the reasons for them, argues Ray Jones

child playing
Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

By Ray Jones

Today’s National Audit Office report on child protection is timely but ultimately flawed, as it fails to look at the bigger picture behind the state of services.

Maybe this is an inevitable consequence of auditors digging down into the data detail without a helicopter view of the bigger landscape. Even so, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the report fails to see the wood for the trees.

The report tells about the tremendous increase in children’s social services and child protection workloads, pointing to a 94% increase in the number of children starting on child protection plans over the past decade. However, the NAO erroneously sees this as relating to the death of Peter Connelly in August 2007 when the major step change was in fact in November 2008 when the ‘Baby P’ media narrative started.

The data the NAO quotes shows how local authorities have increased expenditure on children’s social work in relation to child protection by 11% between 2012-13 and 2014-2015. This might be seen to indicate local councils trying but struggling to generate the capacity to deal with the considerable expansion in child protection activity.

It notes the growing vacancy rates in social work and the increasing reliance on temporary staff. Agency workers now account for 16% of children’s social workers, meanwhile 17% of posts are unfilled. These rates, because of cause and effect, are higher in services judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. And the NAO report shows that more services have been rated by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.

But amongst all the data, an explanation for why this is all happening is not easily found in the NAO report.

The picture which might have – should have – been painted is one of more families getting into difficulty. Of more parents stressed and struggling with benefits and housing cuts and less help for children and families with the closure of children’s centres and the running down of youth services. Of the impact of the withdrawal of grants to community groups and voluntary organisations, such as Home Start.

This all contributes to more and more families being drawn into the child protection net and the difficulties social workers, councils and other agencies have in keeping up with year-on-year increases in activity at a time when local authorities face significant cuts to central government funding.

These efforts are then undermined by Ofsted raising the bar a council must meet to get a ‘good’ rating and having changed its terminology from ‘adequate’ to ‘requires improvement’. The result is that the NAO, comparing performance under two different inspection regimes, reports an overall deterioration in child protection services.

Possibly most alarming from the NAO report is their conclusion that there is no correlation between spend and quality of services. This might be seen – indeed it has been used in recent times by the government and the Department for Education – to argue that it is not the cuts at a time of increasing demand and workloads which is a major cause of the current pressures for many child protection services.

But there is an intervening variable, deprivation, which does correlate with spend and service pressures and performance as shown by separate recent studies by Bywaters, Hood and Bilson.

So what we have in the NAO report is largely an audit of data which, if read carefully, tells of a considerable increase in workloads with no similar increase in resources. But what we do not have is a clear view of the landscape behind the figures.

And unlike the recent House of Commons Education Select Committee report, which was critical of the government’s current disruptive set of children’s social work reforms, the NAO instead recommends the government focuses on improving data collection and actions that should be taken on that data (including intervening more quickly when data might show a council is struggling).

Scrutinising the figures is important. But the problem is that data without discussion and understanding is dangerous, and detail without perspective is limited in its prescriptive value.

4 Responses to The NAO’s analysis of child protection misses the bigger picture

  1. LongtimeSW October 13, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    money, money, money . . .. . . for the privatisation vultures and not for those in need then.

  2. A Man Called Horse October 13, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    Clearly in order to privatise child protection services, you must first create a narrative that Social Workers are failing and need more punishment, hence the Cameron idea that Social workers could be jailed for up to five years if wilful neglect can be proven against them. The narrative must include demoralizing staff, freezing their pay for years and using the press to demonize them at every opportunity. Over time this will plant seeds of doubt in the minds of the public about the quality of Social workers. The fallout was clear for all to see less people want to do the job. How can you work to protect children in a climate of hostile Government intervention and a hostile public informed on a diet of lies and misinformation. The HCPC currently does nothing to protect staff and dishes out punitive sanctions on staff who they say cannot cope. The brutal reality of cuts and poverty in Britain is seen by all Social Workers in deprived areas. The cuts have destabilised people’s income and destabilised families struggling to cope with savage welfare cuts. Poverty is endemic in deprived communities across Britain. Social Workers should expose the brutality of Tory cuts at every opportunity. I have said this before and I will say it again the Tories are scum

  3. Dave October 17, 2016 at 8:38 am #

    Thanks for this helpful and interesting analysis Ray. It is the nature of audits and auditors that they often fail to see the bigger picture. I think a couple of points are worth raising about the article, though. One is the pointed reference to the increase in work loads stating with the upsurge in “Baby P” media coverage which then seems to get lost in the further comments about the impact of cuts to services and benefits. Which of these has caused the growth in cases and if both, roughly what are the proportions, do we think.

    The second point is about the whether in fact those two things together adequately explain the increase? Is it not also a result of a wider set of social factors coming into play? I would cite the increasing breakdown of family structures and ties, for example, with adults often engaging in serial and superficial relationships that leave children confused and bereft of stable relationships with adults (usually males). At the same time those adults acquire responsibilities for children without the bonds and ties that natural parenthood brings. Families are often no longer families, simply collections of people who live together – and, no that does not apply in all cases, but I suspect it applies in a lot, and a large proportion of those cases that come to the attention of services. It is just not very PC to say it.

  4. CT October 18, 2016 at 8:35 pm #

    In terms of care proceedings and the increase, I would be interested to know what proportion are S20 cases LAs are now taking to court for the scrutiny the courts have made clear they should have. Nobody looked at them for 20 years and then suddenly they did & LAs were criticised. This is fine but it is a sea change around the same time as the publicity around Baby P.