DfE funding cut for sector-led improvement raises spectre of bigger Ofsted role

Local government's programme to improve children's services has survived an unexpected cut in government funding but there is speculation that Ofsted may encroach upon its territory, finds Judy Cooper.

Local authorities reacted in shock in April when the government announced it would no longer fund the Children’s Improvement Board (CIB).

The board, a joint enterprise between the Local Government Association (LGA), the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and Solace, the association of local authority chief executives, was set up to drive improvement across children’s services.

While the Department for Education’s (DfE) contribution was always time-limited, the withdrawal of a promised £8.5 million for 2013-14 after the financial year had already begun and with the CIB having determined its work programme for the year, was deemed a low blow. The DfE maintains the decision was driven by the need to make further savings within the department, and that it was local government’s responsibility to “lead its own performance improvement and take individual and collective responsibility for achieving better outcomes for children”.

Gove sceptical about local government

While directors of children’s services are prepared to take such reasons at face value, chief executives and the board of the CIB remain deeply suspicious of the motives behind the decision. Mark Rogers, chair of the CIB and chief executive of Solihull Council, says education secretary Michael Gove is well-known as a sceptic about local government and is pre-disposed to take money off councils before considering other options. He also suspects that it reflects a growing role for Ofsted in fostering improvement in children’s services, alongside its inspection function.

“We also know Ofsted is moving into the improvement space and this move will give the government flexibility to give them more resource to do that,” he adds.

Ofsted is vague in response to such allegations. A spokesperson simply pointed to its forthcoming consultation on a single inspection of councils’ child protection and looked-after children’s services saying it would “set out our proposals for inspection which we believe will help local authorities to improve services”.

Ofsted ‘moving on to improvement territory’

However, Rogers points to numerous speeches by Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw showing that Ofsted is keen to adopt a role beyond that of inspection in schools. “It would make sense that if Ofsted is moving into this area in schools they will try to do the same with children’s services,” Rogers maintains.

But, Andrew Webb, president of the ADCS, believes that such a role would be limited to auditing and monitoring progress within a council in between official inspections.

“It certainly would not be able to replace a CIB function. If Ofsted becomes part of an improvement programme for a council, how then would they be able to objectively judge improvement? They will have to retain some distance.”

While such conjectures are intriguing they do nothing to help the current problem which is the hole left by the withdrawal of funding. Rogers is surprisingly upbeat about it.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s very useful to have that money but it did come with strings attached and targets,” he says. “So in some ways we have been freed up from all of that.”

Social work improvement programme scrapped

Thus many of the specific programmes the DfE wanted to see progress in, including adoption, children with special educational needs and the Social Work Associate Practice programme (SWAP) are being ditched. The latter would have seen senior social workers going into councils to help frontline practitioners improve.

“That’s not to say that things like the adoption diagnostic tool [developed by the CIB to help councils assess their adoption services) will be scrapped, but councils will have to pay to use such tools in the future or to develop them further.” Rogers adds. SWAP, for example, was to be an extensive and well-involved programme [designed to help improve social worker skills] in every region. But it was going to take a large amount of money so we cannot proceed with it.”

Instead the CIB is likely to focus on its core, original offering of peer challenge and review, where senior council officers visit other councils and help identify early signs of risk. It is designed to help councils survive a toughened up Ofsted inspection regime and is essentially cost-neutral as councils have already agreed to free up time for directors of children’s services to undertake such work.

Strong appetite for sector-led improvement

Graeme McDonald, director of Solace, says the appetite among councils to help each other remains strong and there are still discussions to be had on how other areas of work could be funded by councils themselves. Webb thinks the CIB is likely to lose a lot of its national focus but will carry on regionally.

“A lot of the national tools that were developed because of central funding will now be used and perhaps developed further at a regional level.”

But he points out that projects, such as his own to develop training materials in response to the Family Justice Review to improve social workers’ critical thinking and court report writing, is unlikely to be distributed nationally because of the funding cut. Whether the funding hole will slow down council momentum on social work reform remains to be seen.

But Rogers and McDonald point out the government has been less than energetic on social work reform itself, evidenced by the relatively long time it took to appoint chief social workers. In contrast, Webb thinks the CIB has made an impact in the past two years, prompting councils to think more about “owning” the improvement agenda and stimulating local authorities to support each other on a number of levels.

“There’s not been enough time to translate that thinking into new systems across the board but I hope we don’t lose the momentum. I honestly don’t think the CIB could have done things any more quickly.”

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