Service demand no excuse for poor performance, finds Ofsted

Increased demand for child protection and safeguarding services is not an excuse for a council's poor performance, Ofsted's annual report for 2009-10 has revealed.

Increased demand for child protection and safeguarding services is not an excuse for a council’s poor performance, Ofsted’s annual report for 2009-10 has revealed.

Published today, the report – based on inspections of 119 local authority child protection contact, referral and assessment services – found no apparent link between increased demand and the quality of service that a local authority can maintain.

Inspectors found the pressures of increased demand were noted as often in high-performing authorities as poorly performing ones. Although recognising the pressure the entire system was under, inspectors remained concerned by the “very great variation” in the effectiveness with which councils and local partnerships managed it.

The proportion of children’s services rated outstanding by Ofsted has doubled this year. But 10 councils are likely to be judged as performing poorly when the watchdog publishes its yearly ratings on December 9th, after one third of the 29 councils inspected this year were rated inadequate.

However, the report stated that the sample was not representative of local authorities nationally, because councils were prioritised for inspection on the basis of risk.

Ofsted’s chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, said the poor ratings were down to safeguarding issues in each of the 10 authorities, adding that safeguarding remains a “consistent” problem. Common concerns included poor management of child protection services and difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff.

The least effective councils had weaknesses in performance management, risk assessments, quality assurance, reporting, audit evaluation and monitoring. Local safeguarding children boards in weaker areas were not effective in identifying areas for improvement across partnerships and ensuring these were followed up.

Gilbert said it was impossible to provide high-quality safeguarding without high-quality leadership. She pointed out the report found that quality safeguarding depended on quality assessments, care planning and reviews, as well as how well staff built and used relationships with children and families.

Inspectors recommended that multi-agency partnerships should define and agree thresholds for referrals because a lack of clarity resulted in high numbers of inappropriate referrals. Inspections showed that good or outstanding councils tended to have more stable workforces, fewer vacancies and fewer agency staff due to good management practice.

Just under half the councils inspected were judged good overall in their services for looked-after children, but no authority was rated outstanding.

Inspectors also found that many assessments were of a higher quality than the long-term work that followed, including case planning, reviewing interventions and recording outcomes.

Gilbert said Ofsted was “prioritising the inspection of weaker providers and devoting fewer resources to those that are good or outstanding. These changes are sharpening inspection and accountability, and should ensure rapid improvements”.

Matt Dunkley, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said: “Ofsted’s findings that one in three of the local authorities they inspected have been found to be inadequate at keeping children safe are clearly disappointing.

“However, the finding is not totally surprising as the inspections were rightly focussed on those local authorities suspected of having difficulties in this area. It is also important that these findings are seen in the context of rising demand for social care services… Whilst some authorities have managed to find imaginative ways of dealing with these issues, others have found that, despite their best efforts, it has not been possible to manage the increasing pressures with low staff numbers.

“Ofsted’s analysis of the challenges facing children’s social care and the key elements in an excellent service make a strong contribution to local authorities’ capacity to improve – it is now vital that a sector-owned improvement infrastructure is developed to complement the analysis of problems with the provision of solutions to these challenges.”

Schools secretary Michael Gove said the report revealed concerns in safeguarding, children’s homes and fostering.

“There is a lot we can learn from and I’m determined that we will free up the [sector] so that professionals can learn from the best, adapting delivery to their local needs, rather than having to follow a set system dictated from Whitehall,” he said.

Authorities rated inadequate were: Cornwall; Warrington; Leeds; Sandwell; Calderdale; Peterborough; Nottinghamshire; Salford; Birmingham and Essex.

Those rated adequate were: Cambridgeshire; North Yorkshire; Blackpool; Redbridge; Bromley; Greenwich; Rochdale; Wokingham and Rotherham.

Those rated good were Hounslow; Hillingdon; Swindon; Knowsley; Plymouth; Bristol; Trafford; Enfield and Hartlepool.

Only Lincolnshire was rated outstanding.

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