The Department for Education has come under pressure from MPs, Ofsted and independent groups over how it uses data to improve outcomes for children in care.
Speaking at a public accounts committee hearing in the wake of a highly critical National Audit Office report, Meg Hillier MP challenged Department for Education (DfE) representatives on how it “just sits on the data which is coming in”.
The committee felt the Department, which was represented by permanent secretary Chris Womald and director general for children’s services and departmental strategy Paul Kissack, is not using the wealth of data and information it takes from local authorities.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector for Ofsted, called on the DfE to share good practice and help councils improve.
“It needs to be facilitated,” he said of good practice. “Somebody needs to say, ‘that is a local authority in similar circumstances to yourself, similar demographic, who are doing extremely well; why don’t you team up with them to plan places more effectively?’”
Lack of coherence
The Children’s Services Development Group said the hearing showed the DfE is not using the data to adequately reform the commissioning of children’s services.
“It is clear from the evidence given [on Monday] by senior officials in the Department for Education and Ofsted that the lines of accountability for our most vulnerable children remain unclear,” said spokesperson Lizzie Wills.
“Senior representatives “passed around” responsibility for ensuring placement stability and positive outcomes, revealing an overwhelming and fundamental lack of coherence in the care system for looked after children,” she said.
MPs called for more energy when using the data the department collects, while Wilshaw said the system that’s applied to schools should be applied to children’s services.
“It’s really up to the department to collect the data which tells them when things are going wrong and then inform us to inspect more regularly than we normally do,” Wilshaw said.
Intelligent and energetic use of data
The DfE should not wait for the three yearly Ofsted reports before intervening, Womald and Kissack were told. Instead, Wilshaw agreed with MPs suggestions that they should act like the foundation hospital regulator Monitor, who one MP said appears very quickly at the backs of hospitals that are starting to lose their way.
“Once you get that data and it shows that looked-after children are performing extraordinarily badly in that authority, haul in the [director of children’s services], haul in the chief executive.” Wilshaw said.
Womald, however, said top down intervention from the DfE “is not a policy position that would be agreed by the government”, as it isn’t how government sees sector improvement being driven.
Committee chair Margaret Hodge called that statement “shocking”. “The whole purpose is it’s your role,” she said.
“It’s not a question of a top down approach with government telling local authorities what to do, it’s an intelligent and energetic use of the data. You have to intervene before things go so wrong, before you need a formal intervention and to make a difference to children’s lives.”