Child protection services in England remain “unsatisfactory and inconsistent” six years after the government vowed to improve provision, the National Audit Office (NAO) has concluded.
The watchdog’s analysis of performance of services warned of huge variation in the quality of protection received by children in different parts of the country and found evidence of “systemic rather than just local failure”.
The NAO criticised the Department for Education for making “poor progress” in improving services since it commissioned Professor Eileen Munro to review child protection in 2010. It found that six years on the quality of care remained “significantly below par” and interventions to improve failed services had “been ad hoc” rather than comprehensive.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “Six years have passed since the department recognised that children’s services were not good enough. It is extremely disappointing that, after all its efforts, far too many children’s services are still not good enough.”
Responding to the report, the DfE said it was taking “tough action to drive up standards” in children’s services.
The criticism of the DfE comes against a context of rising demand for services, with the number of child protection plans having increased 94% over the past decade. The average spending on children’s service has risen 11% in real-terms over the past three years, the NAO found.
The watchdog’s own analysis found there was no relationship between the amount spent on services by councils and the Ofsted rating they received. However it did conclude there was a link between judgments and the levels of caseloads, vacancies and agency workers, after finding:
- In most authorities judged ‘good’ each social worker had between 10 and 14 cases, compared to up to 35 in ‘inadequate’ authorities.
- ‘Good’ authorities had an average of 7% of social workers as agency staff compared to 22% in ‘inadequate’ services.
- Most good authorities had around 11% of social worker posts vacant compared to 22% in ‘inadequate’ services.
The NAO found the DfE’s interventions to improve failing services were “neither risk-based nor early enough”, adding “The department only intervenes when Ofsted has already found services to have failed local children”. It said the DfE should consider using performance data to “anticipate risks of failure”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Keeping children safe from harm is an absolute priority for this Government, which is why in July this year we published plans to deliver excellent children’s social care – strengthening protection for the most vulnerable children and transforming the support available to them.
“We are taking tough action to drive up standards in children’s services across the country, stepping in when councils aren’t doing well enough and linking them up with better performing local authorities to share best practice. We have also cut red tape so that social workers can spend more time actually supporting families.”
Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “The report shows a concerning lack of consistency and quality of services across the country. More early intervention to robustly address concerns rather than waiting for Ofsted failure is a clear message and there is a pressing need for a strategy that enables improvement across all authorities.
“The current approach appears from the evidence to not be bringing about coherent, whole system change.”