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As with Mark Twain, it seems that rumours of the demise of star ratings may have been greatly exaggerated. But we do know that the latest batch of star ratings, published on 1 December, will be the last in the current form. From next year, the way social services are assessed will change to reflect the widening gulf between adults’ and children’s services. But, unlike in the health sector, star ratings will continue to play a role.

The current system has existed since 2001 and social services departments have grown accustomed to the annual pronouncement of their success or failure.

Bedfordshire Council knows more than most what it is like to receive a poor star rating. In 2001 its social services department received one star, which then fell to zero stars in 2002, when it was put on special measures. It stayed at zero in 2003 and 2004 before going up to one star again this year.

Malcolm Newsam, the council’s director of children’s services designate, who joined the authority in January last year with the remit to improve services, admits that going through the star ratings process has been challenging. “The low ratings were demoralising for the social services department and for the council.”

Yet it is a different matter for local authorities that excel. Somerset Council received a three-star rating this year and last,  having previously been awarded two stars in 2003, one in 2002 and two in 2001. Neil Pack, the council’s business development manager, says that when the authority was awarded three stars he was pleased that the quality of its services was finally being recognised. “It was a compliment,” he adds.

One of the key reasons for having a system of social services star ratings in the first place has been to drive through improvements in services. So how far has this been achieved?

For Enfield Council, the star ratings have had a significant impact on services, according to Peter Lewis, director of education, children’s services and leisure. The north London borough had been a zero-star authority since 2001 but made it to two stars last year when it became the most improved council in the capital. Lewis says that it helped having a business link manager from the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) regularly discuss how to improve provision.

But this view is not shared by Linda Sanders, director of adult, community and housing services at Dudley Council, West Midlands. “Star ratings don’t improve services. Effective management, good political support and excellent staff do,” she says. Although she does believe that if a local authority is awarded a poor star rating it can help it to focus on improvements. Since the star ratings began, Dudley has been a consistent two-star authority and Sanders says this has had a positive effect on morale. “It is external recognition and it’s important for staff.”

Given the option, would local authorities choose to have star ratings at all? The response is divided because of the effort and bureaucracy involved in the evaluation. Recording the necessary information is particularly time-consuming where councils have not developed performance management systems.

In future, there will be separate judgements for children’s and adults’ services, although not necessarily at the same time. Whereas services for adults will be star-rated annually, those for children will be reviewed jointly by Ofsted and the CSCI every three years, with a rating method yet to be decided.

The CSCI’s director of quality performance and methods, Jonathan Phillips, says it was necessary to change the way social services were assessed in order to acknowledge the development of separate children’s and adults’ directorates within councils. With this in mind, the commission is “trying to reflect the new responsibilities” of care services in the way that it reviews them.

Phillips adds that the commission may need to refine its approach to adults’ services once it knows the contents of the forthcoming white paper on health and social care, expected next year.

Phillips would like the new system to be easier for local authorities to comply with, and the commission is consulting stakeholders and councils on how to achieve this. “We are working to ensure that the process to achieve star ratings places little demand on local authorities.” In January, the commission will issue details to local authorities about the new approach and adult services will be reviewed from the spring, with a view to publishing the next star ratings at the same time next year.

Yet, given that it is their services that are being inspected, what do local authorities want from the new inspection process?

Sanders would like closer alignment with the council-wide comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) process and more integration with the NHS performance system where star ratings have been scrapped and replaced with a more detailed system.

Pack calls for greater consistency in how regulators rate the different services so that the judgements are clear to service users. He says the language used by different inspectorates can be confusing for the public – in social care, services are awarded stars while the CPA rates local authorities with a word, such as “good” or “weak”.

Stars are a simple enough concept for the public to understand but are considered, as Newsam puts it, a bit of a “blunt instrument”. He says star ratings tell only a small part of the story and do not depict the bigger picture. He would like the new system to encourage improvement rather than just score services. “It’s about being clear about the information that support the star,” he says.

Lewis takes the argument further, saying that it does not matter whether a social services department receives a star rating from the CSCI so long as it “maintains its relationship with a critical friend to help us review and recognise where we are performing well and where we might need to improve”.

Whatever the form of social services assessment in the future, it must take on board the lessons of this previous star-ratings system if it is to have any real value.

History of star ratings
Performance ratings for social services departments in English councils were first announced in October 2001 by then health secretary Alan Milburn. The first star ratings were produced in May 2002 and were intended to improve public information about the performance of a service and its capacity for improvement. Local authorities’ children’s and adults’ social services were inspected and an overall star rating awarded. The best performing councils were given increased freedom over how they spent their funding while under-performing councils received additional support. Originally published by the Social Services Inspectorate, the star ratings became the responsibility of the Commission for Social Care Inspection in April 2003.

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