There is clear evidence that links deprivation, expenditure and quality in children’s services

Paul Bywaters and Calum Webb unpack the links between deprivation and Ofsted ratings and say what it might mean for families

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Photo: ra2 studio/Fotolia

By Paul Bywaters and Calum Webb


The 2017 Ofsted Annual Report made the radical step of acknowledging that high-deprivation local authorities (LAs) were much less likely to be able to achieve a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted judgement than low-deprivation LAs.

This is a major break with the often repeated public position taken by politicians, the National Audit Office, the Department for Education (DfE) and Parliamentary Committees that neither deprivation nor expenditure affect the quality of services.

We wrote about these relationships in Community Care in January 2017, based on 107 local authorities’ Ofsted scores. Now the outcomes for all 152 LAs have been reported by Ofsted. These include the exceptionally small City of London and Isles of Scilly, which are excluded from this analysis.

A year ago we showed that high-deprivation LAs (in the highest third judged by the 2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation ranks) were significantly more likely than low-deprivation LAs (lowest third) to get a ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ judgement. Some argued that you get a different result if you divide LAs differently so this time we compare LAs in the most deprived 40% with the least deprived 40%.

Once again the outcome is the same: almost half of children in a low or very low-deprivation LA will be in a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ LA, more than double the proportion in high or very high-deprivation LAs.

Ofsted Judgement (%)
‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ All
Low or Very Low-Deprivation LAs 47 53 100
High or Very High-Deprivation LAs 23 77 100

So why is this evidence still controversial? First, some people look at these results and say ‘the low-deprivation, low-spend LAs are getting better Ofsted results so that proves that spend doesn’t matter’.

But, of course, low-deprivation LAs spend less because they face lower levels of need, and the funding formula recognises this. So what has to be looked at is the level of spend relative to the demands that LAs face and we would argue that this evidence suggests that the extra spend in deprived LAs is now insufficient.

Almost all LAs have faced cuts under austerity and there are variations between LAs, but the more deprived LAs have faced much bigger average reductions. Between 2010/11 and 2016/17 the most deprived 20% of LAs faced cuts of 27% in average population weighted total children’s services spend per child, after controlling for inflation. The least deprived 20% faced ‘only’ cuts of 4%.

Second, another version of this argument is to say, ‘some high or very high-deprivation LAs get a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted, so why can’t all of them?’ It’s a matter of leadership not expenditure’.

It’s true that overall expenditure per child seems to make little difference to Ofsted judgements in low or very low-deprivation LAs. But in high or very high-deprivation LAs, those that got a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ were spending around 20% more per child on average, in the year before the latest inspection round started, than those awarded ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.

Annual Average CS spend per child, 2013-14
‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’
Low or Very-Low Deprivation LAs £670 £680
High or Very-High Deprivation LAs £1135 £956

Of the 14 deprived LAs which got a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted only one had a level of spend per child below the average for all LAs. So, of course, deprivation isn’t the only factor but the evidence continues to say that it is a very significant one.

Third, don’t some high-spend, low-deprivation LAs get poor Ofsted judgements? Of the 32 low or very-low deprivation LAs which received a ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ judgement, only three spent more per child than the average for all LAs, and those only by a small margin.

Just as deprivation isn’t the only factor nor is expenditure, but there is clear evidence of a pattern that links deprivation, expenditure and quality and that should be faced.

Why does this matter? As the DfE itself argues, all children should get equally good services. Equality of service provision is a matter of social justice. There is widespread acknowledgement that there is currently substantial variation in children’s services but many deny that this systematically reflects – in part – deprivation or austerity.

Second, it matters because of the current debate about the overall level of spending on children’s services. The LGA have estimated a £2bn shortfall in current annual expenditure, which is expected to get worse during the remainder of this Parliament, and be exacerbated by the planned but uncertain changes in how LAs are funded.

The pattern of Ofsted judgements suggests that high-deprivation LAs, in particular, need to have restored some of the money cut since 2010, but rising demand is affecting all LAs.

Responding to austerity

Third, it matters because of the way cash-strapped LAs are responding to austerity. Many feel that the best thing to do would be to prevent more children from experiencing abuse or neglect and the costly services that result. But in practice since 2010 it is family support and early help services that have been cut substantially while expenditure on looked-after children and safeguarding services has risen.

Effectively there has been an unspoken, undiscussed policy change, which is rebalancing services away from family support at a time when families have faced exceptional pressures. In 2010 almost half of all children’s services spend went on supporting families, with the other half on Safeguarding and Looked-After Children (LAC) services. Now, child protection and LAC dominate with over 70% of total spend.

Finally, the same arguments about deprivation and money not mattering are applied by some to assessments of families. Political and practice judgements about parenting are too often disconnected from whether parents have sufficient, secure income, work and housing to do a good enough job.

Again it’s not just about children’s services spending: policies on universal credit, benefits caps and sanctions, on the bedroom tax, on families with no recourse to public funds, on zero hours contracts, on house building, the NHS and third-sector services can all interact to create problems for families and moral dilemmas for children’s services. Austerity is badly affecting both families and LAs. It’s time for a change.


Paul Bywaters is a professor of social work Huddersfield University, Calum Webb is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield.

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2 Responses to There is clear evidence that links deprivation, expenditure and quality in children’s services

  1. Andrew February 8, 2018 at 12:18 pm #

    Be interesting to ask the Children’s Minister to comment on this research.

    Oh, we don’t have a Children’s Minister any more. In that case, ask that guy who likes to go to all-male events for the super-rich.

    You couldn’t make it up.

  2. Ben McCall February 12, 2018 at 11:41 am #

    Exactly Andrew.

    Enough is known about this to see that the aggregate of these policies and the underpinning philosophical and political approach is about punishing children for the supposed sins of their parents.

    A profound change, that puts children’s needs at the heart of all policy, from teh environment to defence, is needed. Imagine the society that would produce. It is not that utopian. A nascent majority exists for this that demands a brave initiative from all who currently have power and can see that it is essential.