One in seven local authorities in England has been judged inadequate at safeguarding vulnerable children, a report by Ofsted has revealed.
Some councils are struggling to provide even the most basic standards of practice and many existing improvement programmes are failing due to a high turnover of senior leaders, the watchdog said in its first stand-alone annual report on social care, published today.
Only four in 10 local authorities in England have been judged good or better at safeguarding vulnerable children; 20 are currently rated as inadequate, 17 of which were inspected in the past year.
“In the weakest places, the most basic acceptable practice is not in evidence,” said Ofsted. In those places, the views of children and families were rarely considered, support from key statutory partners poorly coordinated and, in some, managers did not have a firm understanding of what constituted good practice.
The findings reflect research by Community Care earlier this year, which revealed that a quarter of the 79 councils inspected under Ofsted’s new inspection regime to date had failed, leading to concerns that the bar was being raised too high.
Responding to today’s report, Unison blamed the failings on government cuts, claiming councils were being faced with “impossible choices of where the axe should fall”.
But Ofsted pointed out that some councils have managed to improve in spite of increasing financial pressures, due in large part to strong and visible leadership.
Ofsted inspectors found that a “persistent absence of stable leadership” was a feature of most of the inadequate authorities.
The report noted that, of the 17 local authorities judged inadequate in the past year, 11 had seen a new director of children’s services recently installed, while 12 had undergone another major change in senior leadership in the period prior to inspection.
One in three councils has had a change in their director of children’s services in the last year.
HM chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, said: “Incompetent and ineffective leadership must be addressed quickly.
“Too much leadership volatility in social care is counter-productive – that goes without saying. The combination of unstable communities and political and managerial instability in our social care services is a dangerous mix.”
The report found that this instability was strangling attempts to improve services.
“A lack of stable leadership and a lack of understanding about what constitutes good practice, often coupled with an unrealistic view of the quality of practice at the frontline, mean that changes programmes in these authorities are not delivering improvement,” the report stated.
Ofsted said the findings of the report underlined the need for its new approach to inspections, which focuses on the difference professional practice is making to the child or family.
Ofsted’s national director for social care, Debbie Jones, said: “Ofsted will be rigorous in holding local councils and social care providers to account, but we will also support them to make the improvements that children deserve.”
The report also found that the performance of England’s children’s homes and other regulated services, such as adoption and fostering, has generally improved over recent years. A high proportion is currently judged good or better on the basis of meeting minimum standards.
However, Ofsted said these standards were not “ambitious enough” for children and warned that forthcoming changes to inspection frameworks in these areas would focus on how services are supporting young people to succeed.
This would likely result in “less generous judgements” in the future, the watchdog warned.
Today’s report was based on more than 4,500 inspections of local authority children’s social care, children’s homes, independent fostering services and voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies, among others, carried out during 2012-13.
Find out how to prepare for and achieve positive Ofsted inspections at Community Care Live Children and Families on 12 December, in London. Register here for your free place