Councils that spend more on early help and those with wealthier populations are more likely to receive an outstanding or good Ofsted grade, research has found.
Researchers said this meant the “most deprived local communities with the greatest needs are least likely to have access to good quality children’s services”, and that the findings challenged a “dominant” narrative of there being no link between spending and performance. They said it also raised questions about the extent to which Ofsted took account of local context in making its judgments.
By contrast with early help investment, the study, published earlier this month, found no significant link between spending more on safeguarding and higher Ofsted ratings.
The report’s authors explained the findings by suggesting safeguarding spending could reflect a failure to deal early enough with family need – often arising from poverty – leading to re-referrals and repeat child protection plans.
Link between deprivation and worse Ofsted grades
Researchers Calum Webb, Davara Bennett and Paul Bywaters considered 374 inspection outcomes between 2011 and 2019, alongside data on preventive and safeguarding expenditure and the index of multiple deprivation (IMD) – the official measure of relative deprivation in England – for each area.
They put local authorities into 10 groups based on their IMD rating and found the chance of having a good or outstanding rating decreased by around 16% between each group as poverty increased, after controlling for year of inspection and expenditure.
For average levels of expenditure, a local authority in the least deprived 10th of councils had a 53% chance of receiving a good or outstanding outcome, while a local authority in the most deprived 10th, with identical expenditure, had only a 19% chance of the same.
While previous research – including a 2020 paper in the British Journal of Social Work (BJSW) – had identified a link between deprivation and Ofsted ratings, no link between spending and performance had been detected, including by the inspectorate itself and public spending watchdog the National Audit Office.
Indeed, Webb, Bennett and Bywaters said there was a “dominant policy narrative” that no such link existed.
Unlike previous studies, their study split preventive spending – children’s centres, family support, services for young people and other provision not directly related to statutory social work – from expenditure on child protection and safeguarding.
They found that for each £100 increase in preventive spending per child, councils were 69% more likely to get a good or outstanding Ofsted rating, after controlling for deprivation, safeguarding spending and year of inspection.
An authority spending around £227 per child (the 25th percentile for preventive spending) had about a 23% of achieving one of the top two grades, compared with a 40% probability for an authority spending £385 per child (the 75th percentile).
No association between safeguarding spend and performance
In contrast, researchers found no statistically significant link between how much authorities spent on safeguarding per child and the Ofsted outcomes they achieved.
The paper suggested the findings could be explained by safeguarding expenditure being related to what it called “failure demand” – demand arising from a failure to address needs early enough.
“The ‘revolving front-door’ of children’s social care, characterised in England by rates of re-referrals and repeat child protection plans that can escalate into care entry (Hood et al, 2016a), highlights the very real consequences of failure demand,” it said.
Overall, it said the paper showed an “inverse care law”, with the most deprived areas with the greatest needs least likely to have access to good-quality services.
As other reports have done, it said the situation had been exacerbated by government cuts to welfare, which had deepened child poverty, and less resource for preventive services since 2010, which had shifted the balance of children’s provision towards statutory support.
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Shift towards statutory spending
The children’s social care review, which is due to publish its recommendations to government in late spring, has decried this shift for making the system more focused on investigating, rather than supporting, families.
A report from Action for Children published last month also criticised the shift, after research it carried out found a quarter of children who did not receive early help following a closed child-in-need assessment were referred back to local authorities within 12 months, from 2015-16 to 2019-20.
Bywaters, professor of social work at Huddersfield University, said the findings likely indicated that councils investing more in early help were more affluent and therefore better equipped to meet demand in their areas than poorer authorities.
“Councils that are a bit less under the cosh can both get a better Ofsted and spend more on early help, so it is not that the early help necessarily drives the Ofsted result,” he told Community Care. “It is more that just that they are both the result of having just a bit more money relative to needs.”
By contrast, he said, councils in poorer areas had suffered the largest budget cuts over the past decade, which “puts pressure on them all around and makes it more difficult to get good Ofsted outcomes”.
Ofsted focus questioned
The paper also said the findings called into question Ofsted’s level of focus on local context in its inspections, citing a previous analysis of 60 inspection reports (Hood et al, 2019) that found a lack of reference to deprivation.
Bywaters said: “It happens in practice too that family poverty is not paid sufficient attention to. It is not even considered or written about in most assessments or court reports or case conference reports.
“And Ofsted not looking at issues around poverty means that local authorities are not going to focus on that either in their practice.
“So, you’ve got a situation where demand is very largely driven by poverty. But that’s not what the focus of inspection ever is. So that’s a mismatch, I think.”
In response, an Ofsted spokesperson said: “We base our inspection judgements on the experiences and progress of children. While inspectors do look at local context to understand the work of the children’s services, it is the right thing for children that we hold all local authorities to the same standards of help, protection and care.”
Cost of living crisis concerns
Bywaters said he was concerned that the current cost of living crisis could increase demand further for councils’ children’s services. The annual rate of inflation reached 6.2% in February, found Office for National Statistics figures released today, and is due to rise significantly higher due to the energy price cap rise of £693 (54%) next month and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think the cost of living crisis that we’re in and is about to get much worse will undoubtedly put more pressure on families and cause more children to be at risk of harm,” said Bywaters.
Austerity, Poverty and Children’s Services Quality in England: Consequences for Child Welfare and Public Services was published in the journal Social Policy and Society. The authors are Calum Webb, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sheffield, Davara Bennett, PhD student at Liverpool University, and Paul Bywaters. Separately, Webb has published a blog post summarising the findings.