Cuts by local authority funding are already impacting on children’s services, Ofsted has said.
Ofsted’s national director for social care, Yvette Stanley, told Community Care that while most local areas are managing to make savings without compromising frontline services, “we are seeing resources reduced in terms of the whole continuum of early help and prevention and this shows councils taking the difficult decisions to protect social care within children’s services, and perhaps children’s services within the wider council”.
In its annual report for 2017-18, the watchdog said it was seeing an impact of reduced funding to councils and “although statutory social care services have been largely locally protected, reductions in funding in other areas are leaving [local authorities] unable to intervene early enough when young people present as needing help.”
It added that evidence suggested cuts to youth and other services were a “false economy” which led “to greater pressures elsewhere”.
“Leaders have begun to report unsustainable budget pressures in both adult and children’s social care,” the report said, before warning that the recent experience in Northamptonshire “should act as a cautionary tale of how the funding situation in local government, coupled with poor management, can lead to a rapid decline in the quality of children’s services”.
Last month, outstanding-rated local authority East Sussex warned that proposed cuts in response to a potential £46m budget deficit could result in more children on child protection plans and entering care.
Stanley said the “worry” was that without preventive services, the expectation is that “more children [would] come up the hierarchy of need”, adding: “I think we were signalling a positive story to date, but a worry for the future.”
Improving services under new framework
Despite the funding pressures, the overall picture for children’s social care was one of improvement, Ofsted found.
Amid the introduction of the new Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Services (ILACS) Framework at the start of the year, more than four in ten (42%) local authorities with an inspection report published in the year to September 2018 were now rated good or outstanding, up from 36% a year ago, Ofsted said.
The number of councils currently deemed ‘inadequate’ has declined from 22% to 13% with two-thirds of those rated inadequate previously being judged as having improved in their reinspection this year.
“The local authorities that are most successful in supporting children are those that have got the basics right. Encouragingly, we have seen this year more of the social care sector doing just that,” said the report.
Ofsted noted the importance of solid leadership in improved judgments, and Stanley added that among a number of contributors, improvement was particularly seen in authorities “where there’s a stable, ambitious, child-centred leadership team” and where “leaders have a really clear direct line of sight and a shared understanding of the risk that’s being managed at the front line”.
“Where they’ve got a strong mutually challenging safeguarding partnership and strong corporate parenting as well – that’s where we see local authorities really motoring and making a difference.”
Ofsted said in its report that these leaders also prioritised their improvement journey, engaged well with partners and ensured continuous engagement and visibility of senior leadership with social workers. Cafcass was highlighted as an example, with the outstanding-rated agency’s leaders deemed “exceptional [and] aspirational”.
The ILACS framework, which in the year to September 2018 had been carried out in 16 councils, has replaced the Single Inspection Framework (SIF), which, until the start of 2018, was still being used to reinspect those local authorities judged ‘inadequate’ in their previous inspections.
Of the six authorities reinspected under SIF in 2017-18, five were deemed ‘good’ and one ‘requires improvement’, Ofsted reported.
Of those inspected under ILACS, only one had declined in performance. Meanwhile, four were deemed ‘outstanding’, including North Yorkshire, which became the first to achieve the accolade across the board, and a further eight were rated good.
Ofsted made 142 visits and inspections in 2017-18, to 88 local authorities. Of these, 39 were focused visits, introduced by Ofsted at the start of the 2018, with one of the first being at Leeds council.
“The new approach is more proportionate, risk-based and flexible than before and allows us to prioritise inspection where it is most needed. [ILACS] better enables us to focus on those areas of provision where there may be concerns, allowing us to ‘catch’ underperforming children’s services before they fall, rather than reporting on failure afterwards,” Ofsted said.
Ofsted noted that common factors among those seven authorities it deemed to still be struggling at their reinspections were:
- failing to address prior-known weakness;
- insufficient staff and managers, with recruitment and retention failures, and high caseloads;
- the quality of social work practice, including failures to identify risk and delay in both protecting and achieving permanent alternatives for children; and
- a lack of purposeful management oversight.
Ofsted noted the prevalence of grooming gangs as a “potential challenge” in all local authorities but said that practice over the past four years had improved “exponentially, leading to a whole different response to vulnerable adolescents” – though it acknowledged that this improvement was “not everywhere”.
“Local partnerships need to understand the scale of risk of criminal exploitation to children in their area, based on effective systems of gathering and sharing information within and between areas, so that patterns of exploitation and criminal activity and the impact on children are understood,” the report said.
Referencing findings from Ofsted’s Growing up neglected and Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery reports, Stanley said that while “not all agencies are sharing all of the intelligence yet to really to get an overview of the issues around county lines and gangs moving across areas,” work was “improving on that”.
She added: “Well-trained practitioners enable a much better response, in terms of those issues, and stay with the child, in terms of restorative practice and building their resilience.”
The watchdog also highlighted that the past few years have seen “a huge increase in children’s services departments adopting a theoretical model of practice or embedding evidence-based practice in their work with children and families”.
Ofsted acknowledged that there was no support for any specific model within its inspection evidence but added that “we have seen more focused assessments and interventions with families, drawing on their strengths while still providing the necessary prompt decision-making in children’s best interests”.