Ofsted will probe the impact of Covid-19 on children’s social care in a series of ungraded visits to local authorities and regulated children’s services this autumn ahead of the resumption of full inspections in the new year.
The Covid-focused visits, starting next month, will look at the impact on children of the controversial relaxation of statutory duties, while the focused visits to local authorities will also consider workforce capacity, responses to any rise in referrals and how councils have maintained contact with looked-after children and care leavers, as part of supporting their physical and mental health.
Ofsted will visit as many councils and providers as possible, focusing on those about whom it has concerns, but also covering a sample of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ services in order to identify good practice. It will resume full inspections, which were halted in March as the country went into lockdown, in January 2021 for councils and April of next year for providers.
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for social care, said: “The normal lines of sight to our most vulnerable children haven’t been in place in recent months. It’s vital that we get back into local authorities and other social care providers to look at how children are being cared for and protected.”
“We are acutely aware of the pressure children’s social care is facing in the wake of Covid-19. This is not about judging, but offering reassurance to children, families, and those commissioning services. We also want to highlight the excellent work local authorities and providers are doing to make sure children get the help, protection and care they deserve in very difficult circumstances.”
What Covid visits will focus on
Ofsted’s return to local authorities will involve carrying out focused visits, but with a broader scope and over a slightly longer period (three, rather than two days on site) than the usual such visits, which take place between full inspections and tend to focus on a particular service area.
These visits will cover decision-making across all areas. In relation to children in need of help or protection, this will include assessing the effectiveness of the front door, including responses to any rise in referrals and the use of thresholds. For children in care and care leavers, the visits will look at how authorities have supported their physical and mental health, including through maintaining contact with them and facilitating contact with their families, and made placement decisions, particularly when sufficiency of supply is a challenge. And in relation to leadership, Ofsted will look at quality assurance, workforce capacity – including how leaders have supported staff wellbeing – and contributions to multi-agency working.
Explaining its approach to the visits, Ofsted said: “Our focus will be on child-centred practice that has been carefully risk assessed to result in the best possible decisions for children in the context of the pandemic locally. We are evaluating and seeking assurance about the quality and impact of practice within a challenging context, when circumstances may have resulted in decisions that may have been different to those taken in normal times. Inspectors will give credit to evidence of practitioners and managers doing the right thing for children in the circumstances.”
Responding to the announcement, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) raised concerns about a “tough autumn” for local authorities with an anticipated rise in referrals as pupils return to schools.
Steve Crocker, chair of the ADCS standards, performance and inspection policy committee, said: “Ofsted’s assurance visits may be one way of capturing the learning from this complex period, including identifying best practice in the context of the pandemic as well as what needs to be improved. These visits could also be helpful in developing our responses to future waves and pandemic events.
“That said, while health services may have passed through the first wave of Covid-19 related activity, children’s services and children’s social care has not and we are anticipating a difficult autumn as we expect many hidden harms to emerge as children become more visible to a range of professionals. This is likely to coincide with all pupils returning to school and the commencement of other inspection activity – including inspections of youth offending teams and schools – which will involve children’s services departments; this, combined with localised outbreaks and lockdowns could create significant pressure on our services and staff and the inspectorates must be alive to this.
“Whilst there may be benefits in capturing learning and developing practice, care must be taken to ensure that there is a balance between inspection, assurance, developing learning and allowing local authorities to respond to what we anticipate being a very tough autumn.”
Impact of relaxed duties
Inspectors will also examine the impact of the government’s controversial relaxation of several children in care duties on children and families. This will also be a focus for the parallel visits to children’s homes, secure children’s homes, residential family centres and independent fostering agencies that Ofsted will be carrying out from September.
The changes include removing the requirement for reviews of looked-after children’s care, beyond the first two reviews, to take place at least every six months, instead stating that these should take place where “reasonably practicable”, and allowing a looked-after child to be temporarily placed with an unconnected person, rather than with a family member or friend, who is not an approved foster carer, and removing the oversight of a local authority nominated officer from the process.
They were implemented, through secondary legislation but without parliamentary debate, in April by the Department for Education, in order to enable councils and providers to manage the impact of the pandemic on demand and their workforces.
However, they have been heavily criticised by children’s charities, Labour, the Children’s Commissioner for England and British Association of Social Workers for the DfE’s failure to consult in advance and on the grounds that the changes were unnecessary and would harm children and families by weakening the statutory framework.
This culminated in a legal case, brought by children’s charity Article 39, which upheld the DfE’s changes though criticised its failure to consult the children’s commissioner.
Article 39 is appealing the decision. Its director, Carolyne Willow, said: “Although the High Court did not find that SI 445 [the statutory instrument relaxing the duties] had been made unlawfully, which we are in the process of appealing, the judge did confirm that important legal safeguards were removed from children in care in April. The Department for Education had hitherto framed these legal protections as administrative burdens and minor changes.
“Mrs Justice Lieven [the judge in the case] also said that considerable caution had to be given to local authorities self-reporting on the extent to which they are applying the new legislative framework. So it is absolutely right that the inspectorate gets as close as possible to children and young people to find out how life has been for them during the pandemic, and to assess the impact of the government’s radical deregulation on individual babies, children and young people.
“For instance, the department apparently doesn’t know how many babies and young children have been placed with foster parents who are also approved to adopt under the new legislative framework, which has removed the need for nominated officer approval. Mrs Justice Lieven said we were entirely correct to warn of the serious implications of this, given such placements are potentially life-changing and significantly reduce the chances of a child returning to their birth family.”