Why stars are underrated

Chief inspector of the Social Services
Inspectorate Denise Platt explodes myths concerning star ratings
and defends the system from detractors who question the evidence on
which ratings are based.

The government is committed to reforming
public services and believes that good services are an essential
part of a civilised society. It understands that public services
belong to the public – not to politicians nor to the professionals
that work in them. And accessible information for the people who
use public services is essential if services are to be designed
around their needs. Information is already supplied to schools and
hospitals. Now it is being provided for social services.

year health secretary Alan Milburn announced he was going to
introduce star ratings for social services. This was because he
wanted a new approach, which would provide more easily accessible
information for the public about how their local services were
performing. We had already developed many ways to assess different
aspects of social services performance. But this information was
published at different times and it was difficult for the public
and councils to have a view on how their services were performing
overall and how they compared with other councils.

the new star-rating system brings together all the existing
performance data, including information from external auditors and
the NHS, with information from inspections, joint reviews and
in-year monitoring to formulate a more rounded assessment of each
council’s performance. On 30 May the Social Services Inspectorate
published its first ratings – there are separate judgements for
children and adult services – but there is a single star rating for
the overall social services performance.

are many myths about how the star ratings were decided. We are most
often asked how much involvement (meaning interference) did
ministers have in the ratings? Well, the answer is none. The SSI
awarded the star rating for each council. Government ministers,
including Alan Milburn, did not see the ratings until Monday 27
May, the day that individual directors received their rating. I
discussed the councils that had been given zero stars with health
minister Jacqui Smith in the previous week so that we could agree
what action we would take to help them improve. Ministers had
earlier approved the methodology for developing the ratings and
agreed the key performance indicators. All this information was
available in advance on the Department of Health

At the
SSI we went to considerable lengths to ensure that inspectors were
consistent in how they used performance evidence to evaluate
councils as we did not want the rating to vary depending on the
person responsible for the analysis. We undertook a three-stage
validation and consistency checking process at regional,
cross-regional and national levels. This involved peer review and
both internal and external challenge. These processes are common in
all inspection and performance activity, but we were aware of the
importance of this set of ratings and we had to be confident that
we could defend, with evidence, our judgements.

Councils were awarded the star
rating that they had earned. We had no preconceived ideas about how
many councils would fall into which category. Nor did we
predetermine any council’s stars. There were lots of rumours that
councils on special measures would be awarded zero stars
regardless. But six councils on special measures earned one star
and were removed from that category. All the councils awarded zero
stars are now on special measures and we are working with them to
agree the improvements we want to see in their services in the
short and medium term. Four councils will receive the help of
performance action teams. The specification for the work of these
teams will be developed jointly by the SSI and the council
concerned. The teams will not take over the management of a
service, but be there to support managers and staff in making

is not about naming and shaming zero-star councils. We are
identifying them as needing intensive support to improve their
services so that they can deliver a safe and good quality service
to the people they serve. Research shows that councils in this
situation benefit from the extra support and focused attention. The
Audit Commission, which recently reported on how inspectorates
support councils to improve, has commented favourably on the SSI
approach and the successful improvement made by local

know from experience that councils can and do improve their
services even when the services have significantly deteriorated.
But if councils cannot improve, even with the assistance and
support of a performance action team, as a last resort ministers
will consider using the intervention powers set out in the Local
Government Act 1999. They will take this action in order to protect
the interests of the public and to ensure they receive the standard
of service to which they are entitled.

zero-star councils there are still good things going on and staff
are working hard to deliver a quality service, but they need extra
support and, in some cases, a fresh approach to turn things around
where it matters most to the people who use their

Councils that have improved their
services have done so by working with front-line staff, listening
to them about what will improve the services and involved them in
changing the service for the better. And, although it is
disheartening to learn that your council has a low star rating when
you have done your best, it does not mean that nothing can be done
to improve the service. Councils that have been in the same
position have shown it can be done. It is hard work, but rewarding
to make changes that the public appreciates. And getting it right
means involving staff.

star system is intended to help councils to improve their services
and to build in incentives for high-performing councils, while
providing help for those performing less well. Good performance is
rewarded with the freedom to spend money in the ways that the
council sees fit rather than the ways set down by the government.
For poorer performers, it is a way to identify and tackle poor
performance. We know that intensive monitoring works to improve
performance and the star ratings will make it easier for us to spot
and then deal with poor performance in specific

So in
the allocation of the performance fund this year, councils with
three stars will be able to spend the money on any part of their
social services and they will also be inspected less frequently.
Next year they will be given similar freedoms over other grants
which will be specifically targeted in remaining councils. Councils
with lower ratings will agree a performance improvement plan with
SSI and their share of the performance fund will be targeted and
closely monitored.

also read that the ratings were “flawed” because people said we
used “old information”. We did use the performance indicators,
which were published last October, but this was only one part of
the evidence that we used.

We are
aware that councils are suspicious of an “over-reliance” on
indicators, which is why we used all the other available published
information. But, so that the comprehensive performance assessment
(CPA) ratings for the whole council, which are to be published in
November, are based on the most up-to-date social services
information, we propose to refresh our ratings at the same time.
This is because the social services rating will play a large part
in the final rating awarded to a council.

will examine the most recent performance information that councils
submitted in May, and any significant inspection or joint review
findings that become available over the summer. But we expect the
changes between ratings to be few and, of course, they can go down
as well as up. We will also take the opportunity to re-assess the
zero-star councils and decide whether further action is

year we will move to an autumn cycle for the ratings to make sure
that the social services part of the CPA is based on the best and
most recent data.

commentators have concentrated on the overall star rating, but the
underpinning judgements throw light on performance generally. These
show that, based on current performance, the evidence is that in
adult services 28 per cent of councils are serving all or most
people well, 70 per cent of councils are serving some people well
and only 2 per cent of councils are not serving people well. In
children’s services 33 per cent of councils are serving all or most
people well, 63 per cent of councils are serving some people well
and 5 per cent of councils are not serving people well.

if we look at the prospects for improving this performance, the
star ratings show that 69 per cent of councils have good prospects
(either “promising” or “excellent”) for improvement. Seventy-three
per cent of councils have good prospects for improving their
children’s services and 66 per cent of councils have good prospects
for improvement in their adult services. Even in one-star councils
more than half of them (54 per cent) were judged to have good
prospects. So there is considerable opportunity for councils to aim
for a higher rating than the one they have gained this year by
realising this potential and improving their services.

ratings do not show that councils in more affluent areas do better
– some councils in these circumstances demonstrated poorly
performing services. Nor do they show that those working with the
most deprived communities do less well, as some did very well.
Councils in both rural and inner city areas performed well. And
some councils in rural and inner city areas that are similar or
next to three-star councils did not do well. New unitary councils
however, with some notable exceptions, did seem to have more of a
struggle to deliver consistently across all their

overall performance of two-star councils paints an encouraging
picture. There is evidence of an upward path of improvement with
excellent performance in some councils. We hope a number of these
councils will gain three stars next year.

councils made significant improvements during the year. The 20
named last October by the health secretary as the “most improved”
confirmed this assessment in their star rating, being on average
much better than other councils. These 20 have a much higher
proportion of two and three-star ratings than the

of the 14 councils identified as poor performers last October
received zero stars. All but one gained one star. This reflects, in
part, the improved performance in those councils since October when
we examined all the evidence available about them. One council
(Kirklees), which was described in October as a poor performer and
at the same time a “fast improving” council, earned two

No one
should underestimate the effort made by councils that moved from
special measures to one star. For these councils, starting from a
low baseline of performance, this rating represents a big
achievement and earns them more praise than any of the others. They
still have much to do, but they have shown they can turn around
their service and begin to rebuild the confidence of their public.
And these councils have shown exemplary teamwork – not only among
social services staff, their managers and directors, but their
chief executives and councillors have also been involved in making
the difference.

ratings are here to stay. The importance that they have in the
performance rating of the whole council has allowed social
services, almost for the first time, to receive the corporate and
councillor attention that they deserve. The media has commented
favourably that the ratings are easy to understand. They make a
simple statement about the performance of a fiendishly complex
service but they serve an important purpose – letting the public
know how well their local councils perform.

Denise Platt is chief inspector of the
Social Services Inspectorate.

Background Reading

1 F Rickford, “Star wars”,
Community Care, 31 January 2002

2 T Cutler, “Star or black hole”,
Community Care, 30 May 2002


1 Go to www.community-care.co.uk
and search the archive using the key words “star

2 Full star ratings information from
Department of Health at

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