Indicators raise fears for children’s services

Targets have been a keynote of Labour’s 10 years in power and a source of strain between the government and public service professionals.

However, that looks set to change with a bonfire of performance indicators across Whitehall and local government. Yet, while welcomed by social care leaders, there are some reservations over the possible impact on children’s services.

Public service agreements – the headline government targets for its top priorities – will be cut from 110 to 30 from 2008 to 2011, chief secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham said last week.

And, as outlined in last year’s local government white paper, targets for councils to deliver, singly or in partnership, will be slashed from up to 1,200 in some areas to a national indicator set of 200, which will be announced this autumn.

While all councils must report on their progress against all 200, they will be judged primarily on 53 – most of which should reflect local priorities – which will form each area’s “local area agreement”. Local bodies can also set their own local targets, on which they do not need to report to government.

LAAs, which have been piloted over the past two years, will, the government claims, be the key mechanism for councils and their local partners, such as primary care trusts, to both deliver ministers’ priorities and respond to local needs.

However, at this month’s Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference, members raised concerns with Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) officials over the possible balance of targets across children’s services under the new system, including the potential dominance of education.

First, they warned that the 84 children’s services indicators proposed by the DCSF to feed into the 200 council targets did not reflect all five Every Child Matters outcomes – being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being.

Marginalised outcomes

Specifically, directors claimed making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being were marginalised – with only 10 indicators between them – while “achievement” in the shape of education attainment targets was heavily dominant over “enjoyment”. About half of the 84 targets related to education, with none covering play.

The government insists that it is still consulting informally on the indicator set, but that it can only issue targets in areas where it can collect relevant data, meaning that inevitably there are more targets on education than other areas given the national system of tests and exams. It also argues that educational success is crucial to other outcomes for children, such as achieving economic well-being.

David Hawker (pictured right), chair of the ADCS standards, performance and inspection committee, says this explanation can only go so far: “I’m surprised it’s not possible to collect data about play. I’m also surprised we can’t do better on volunteering and participation, for instance young people’s involvement in service planning.” There are no indicators on young people’s involvement in planning and Hawker also complains of a lack of focus on child poverty.

A second criticism from directors concerns LAAs. Under current plans, 18 of the 53 targets incorporated within LAAs will be mandatory education and early years targets which, directors warn, may leave little space among the remaining 35 for other children’s services indicators, such as those covering children’s social care.

Despite professionals’ aversion to targets, Carol White, director of children’s services at Calderdale Council, says: “The one thing that’s worse than having a target is not having a target when you’re talking about resources and priorities.”

Her fear is that other services within the local strategic partnership – the decision-making forum for LAAs – will see the 18 mandatory targets as sufficient for children’s services, to the detriment of social care and other non-educational areas.

This is particularly problematic given the way LAAs are funded. Each area will be given an unringfenced LAA grant, made up of individual funding streams dedicated previously to specific initiatives. Though the streams will not be announced until this autumn’s comprehensive spending review, White claims about half the funding will come from children’s services grants.

Hawker says: “There’s a risk for children’s services and young people’s services that money originally intended to be spent on them may be spent elsewhere if local partners don’t prioritise these areas of service.”

To prevent this, White says the Department for Communities and Local Government, which oversees LAAs, should issue strong guidance on how local partnerships should prioritise children’s services not covered by the 18 mandatory indicators.

But others argue that the problems identified by directors of children’s services locally are more apparent than real.

Andrew Cozens (pictured left), strategic adviser for children, adults and health services at the Improvement and Development Agency, says in many ways children’s services are in a stronger position than others.

He says councils and local partners will be led by a cross-government push on a range of children’s issues, led by the DCSF, including support for disabled children and their families and youth services, which will be reflected in PSAs.

He adds that the structures set up by the Children Act 2004 – for instance, statutory children and young people’s partnerships – mean children’s services are more advanced in terms of joint planning and assessments of local needs than others.

Cozens says: “If anything, there’s a risk there will be too great a proportion of children’s services targets compared with other areas.”

Holistic thinking

Jo Webber, deputy policy director at the NHS Confederation, says children’s services will be adequately catered for so long as LAAs are determined by local needs rather than central targets.

On the issue of the 18 mandatory education targets, she admits: “There will always be national must do’s. But there’s a thrust [from government] to reduce them.”

For Cozens and Tony Hunter, co-chair of the resources committee at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, LSPs must think of their communities’ needs holistically, rather than in terms of separate service blocks.

Good outcomes for children, for instance in terms of safeguarding them or enabling them to contribute to the community, are good for the community and vice versa, Hunter argues.

He adds: “Separate service blocks mean nothing to Mr and Mrs So-and-So from Such-and-Such Street. I don’t think whether there are more indicators in a particular area really matters.”

Local area agreements

● From 2008, all 150 English councils will sign a local area agreement with fellow local public bodies and their government regional office.

● The three-year LAA will be based on a set of 53 targets which local partners will agree to deliver and councils will report progress on annually.

● These will be drawn from a list of 200 measures in a national indicator set for councils, which will be published this autumn.

● Eighteen of these targets are mandatory, covering education and early years services. The other 35 will be negotiable and are supposed to be based on local needs.

● LAAs will be placed on a statutory footing, and councils’ partners will face a duty to “have regard” to the targets.

● Local partners can add their own local targets which they will not need to report on to government.

● Partners can fund the delivery of these targets through their general funding allocations and an unring-fenced LAA grant, into which a number of government funding streams will be pooled.

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Further information
Essential information on children’s services
Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference presentations

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 Mithran Samuel


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