Children’s social care data underused by stretched councils, report warns

Quality of practice variable, with some local authorities struggling to do more than collate figures for statutory submissions

Image of stream of data (Credit: Dmitry / Adobe Stock)
Credit: Dmitry / Adobe Stock

Children’s social care data is being underused at local and regional levels, with the impact of austerity limiting some councils from doing more than collating figures for statutory returns, a report has warned.

The briefing note by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NJFO), which reviewed a range of other recent studies, noted that numbers submitted by councils to the government, for instance around looked after children numbers, constitute only a small fraction of the data they hold.

Government analysis of such datasets is published with a significant time-lag and does not typically provide any indication of the pathways of children through social care services.

The report said many councils find preparing data for submission to the Department for Education to be onerous and time-consuming, particularly because performance management teams have been depleted by cuts.

‘Incredible variation’

“The use of data is incredibly variable between local authorities,” said the report’s author, Lisa Holmes, director of the University of Oxford’s Rees Centre and co-investigator for the NFJO, which focuses on improving the use of data and analysis across the family justice system.

“Some use statutory datasets on a monthly or quarterly basis for local area analysis, whereas others struggle with capacity and have to spend the whole three-month timeframe from April to June preparing the data for submission to DfE.”

The latter group may not have the resources to make any use of such data for local or regional strategic planning, the report said. But more positively, it also noted examples, albeit isolated ones, where councils were “building their analytical capacity” by recruiting people trained in specialist software and techniques.

The report called for greater collective effort to find “creative solutions” for putting to use the large amounts of children’s social care data already collected.

Holmes said the Children’s Social Care Data User Group forum, of which she is part, was “trying to identify mechanisms for sharing analytical learning, across academics and local authority analysts, focused on developing capacity and capability.”

‘Diminishing capacity’

Steve Crocker, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) standards, performance and inspection policy committee, said the report “rightly highlights the burden placed on us in terms of national data collections, the significant lag in the publication of this data impacting on its usefulness and our diminishing capacity to collect and analyse data as specialist staff continue to be lost as a result of falling budgets”.

But Crocker said the analysis in the new report did not provide insight into work done locally via regional improvement and innovation alliances, such as benchmarking and peer challenge, and other sector-led innovations.

He also cited the Children Looked After Analysis Project, funded by ADCS, the DfE and 147 councils, as a positive example of how data was being used. “This project brings together social care and education data in real time to allow virtual school heads to put in place bespoke support to help children in care achieve better outcomes, and its development was sector-led,” Crocker said.

“Projects such as this highlight the value of data to authorities that can be nimble and work in real time with accurate data to improve the quality of services to, and outcomes for, vulnerable children.”

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