Panel disappointed with ministers’ response to its proposals to boost safeguarding of disabled children

Safeguarding body raises concerns over ministers firmly accepting two of its nine recommendations to improve safeguarding of disabled children in residential settings, following review into serious abuse in Doncaster

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Government safeguarding advisers have voiced their disappointment over ministers’ response to their recommendations to improve the safeguarding of disabled children in residential settings.

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel raised concerns over the fact that the government firmly accepted just two of the nine recommendations from its inquiry into the abuse of over 100 children and young adults in Doncaster from 2018-21.

In its response to the review, published last month, the Department for Education (DfE) accepted the other seven in principle only, meaning ministers are not committed to implementing the panel’s specific proposals.

Inquiry into abuse at special schools

The panel made its recommendations last year in its second report into abuse at three residential special schools registered as children’s homes run by the Hesley Group. This is currently the subject of a criminal investigation.

In its first report, published in 2022, the panel, while heavily critical of the Hesley Group for allowing a “culture of abuse and harm” to prevail at the schools, also found significant failings among the institutions responsible for oversight. These included Ofsted and Doncaster’s local authority designated officer (LADO) service.

The second report examined the systemic issues arising from the case and set out proposals on how to improve practice, commissioning and regulation nationally.

The panel’s recommendations and the government’s response

  1. Disabled children and those with complex health needs in residential settings should have access to independently commissioned, non-instructed advocacy from advocates with specialist training in safeguarding and responding to their communication needs. Accepted.
  2. Children and parents should have access to advice and support, including the allocation of a ‘navigator’, where deemed necessary, when a residential placement of 38 weeks or above per year is being considered. Accepted in principle.
  3. The DfE and NHS England should require councils and integrated care boards (ICBs) to commission safe, sufficient and appropriate provision for disabled children and those with complex health needs. Accepted in principle.
  4. The DfE, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England should co-ordinate support for councils and ICB commissioners to improve forecasting, procurement and market shaping. Accepted in principle.
  5. The government should prioritise action to improve community-based provision for disabled children in pathfinder programmes for its children’s social care and special educational needs and disability (SEND) reforms. Accepted.
  6. The government should commission a workforce strategy for children’s residential services, covering leadership development, workforce standards and training. Accepted in principle.
  7. National leadership and investment from providers are needed to improve the recruitment, retention and development of the children’s residential workforce. Accepted in principle.
  8. Host local authorities and ICBs should have a strengthened role in overseeing residential settings in their areas. Accepted in principle.
  9. The DfE and DHSC should revise and reduce the complexity of current arrangements for monitoring residential settings and take immediate steps to arrange joint inspections by Ofsted and CQC of those for children with disabilities and complex health needs. Accepted in principle.

Government reforms ‘will improve support for disabled children’

Unveiling the government’s response in a parliamentary statement, children’s minister David Johnston cast the panel’s recommendations in the light of the DfE’s reform children’s social care and SEND reform programmes.

Children's minister David Johnston

Children’s minister David Johnston

He said that the “the failures identified by the panel demonstrate the urgent need for the transformation of children’s social care and [SEND] that we are driving forward”.

Johnston claimed the reforms would “ensure that disabled children receive the best support, safeguarding and protection, and care from all those who are looking after them”.

Advocacy and community services proposals accepted

In its response to the panel, the DfE accepted two recommendations in full: on ensuring disabled children in residential care had access to independent, non-instructed, specialist advocacy and on improving community provision for the group.

The DfE said the panel’s advocacy recommendation would be implemented through its planned revisions to national standards and statutory guidance on advocacy for looked-after children, children in need and care leavers, consulted on last year.

These would introduce a standard requiring that children who were unable to give instructions on a specific issue could access non-instructed advocacy.

The DfE also said it had accepted the recommendation for improvements to community services for disabled children to be priorities in its children’s social care and SEND reforms. It pointed to its commissioning of charity the Council for Disabled Children to identify the most effective local authority-commissioned provision for disabled children in the community.

Recommendations accepted ‘in principle’

However, it did not commit itself to implementing the panel’s other specific recommendations, accepting them only in principle.

One such recommendation was for an enhanced role for host local authorities and NHS integrated care boards (ICBs) in overseeing residential settings in their areas, to improve the early identification of safeguarding risks.

This was in the light of the panel finding major failings in Doncaster’s LADO service in responding to over 200 referrals concerning staff at the Hesley Group schools from 2018-21. This was caused by a lack of communication between it and placing authorities’ designated officer services, it said.

The panel suggested its proposal could include having named officers in councils and ICBs with responsibility for care of children placed in their area. As part of their role, they would receive and review reports on settings by regulation 44 visitors, who are appointed by children’s homes to inspect them monthly.

It also suggested creating a register of children placed away from home and called for LADOs to “work proactively across local authority boundaries, analysing and sharing information between the host authority, placing local authorities and regulators in respect of workforce concerns relating to staff in residential settings”.

Review of LADO role

Following the publication of the panel’s first report, in November 2022, education secretary Gillian Keegan pledged to work with government departments and councils to review the LADO role and consult on developing a handbook on how to carry out the function.

However, the DfE’s response to the panel’s second report suggested little progress had been made on this review, 14 months on. The DfE said that it would “work with local authorities and Ofsted to review what changes need to be made to the responsibilities of [LADOs] including making sure they have access to the information they need to safeguard children in their area”.

It said it expected any changes to the role that resulted from the review to be consulted on later this year, with no reference made to a LADO handbook.

More broadly, the DfE did not make any specific pledges to enhance the role of host authorities and ICBs.

No commitment on workforce strategy

The panel also called on ministers to develop a children’s residential care workforce strategy, including leadership development, staffing standards and training, to tackle high levels of vacancies, turnover and agency staff use.

In response, the DfE made no commitment to developing a strategy and instead pointed to a residential care workforce census it carried out last year – and will repeat in 2024 – to enhance understanding of staffing in the sector.

It also referenced existing pledges to explore the development of a leadership programme for children’s home managers and professional registration of the workforce.

Alongside the DfE’s response, Johnston has written to residential providers, regulators Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission and local authorities and fellow safeguarding partners asking them to review practice regarding disabled children.

In his letter to Ofsted and the CQC, Johnston asked them to consider what further work could be done to better protect disabled children in residential settings. This should include considering the panel’s recommendation of them carrying out joint inspections of these services.

The DfE has also pledged to review progress on the safeguarding of disabled children in residential settings after six months.

‘Disappointing’ response

The panel said it was pleased that the government had published a “comprehensive” response to its recommendations and welcomed these letters.

“We support government’s aspirations to address some of the system problems identified in our review, though it is disappointing that 7 of our 9 recommendations are accepted in principle only.

“The proposed six-month review of progress will therefore be important in evaluating how well change is achieved.”

“It is vital that the proposed changes enable parents and children to be assured that, wherever their children are living, they receive the highest quality care and protection.”

‘Need for urgency’

The Council for Disabled Children (CDC) – whose former director Christine Lenehan lead the panel’s review – issued a similar message.

“While these reforms will require careful development and implementation, we must also move forward with urgency so that this most vulnerable group of children and young adults are assured the safety and support they deserve,” said Lenehan’s successor at the CDC, Amanda Allard.

“We will be eager to see what concrete progress has been made at the six-month review point,” added Allard, who is also director of practice and programmes at the National Children’s Bureau, of which the CDC is a part.

Workforce investment key – ADCS

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services focused its response to the publication on the need for greater investment in the residential care workforce.

“All professionals who work with children with complex health needs, across residential settings and schools, hold significant responsibility and should therefore be given the support needed for such specialist work,” said ADCS president John Pearce.

“This goes beyond registration but should instead seek to ensure all members of this vital workforce have the right skills, values and behaviours required. There is also an urgent need to improve the status of the residential care sector and the professionals working within it.

“Their role can be transformative but we need national government to help push this positive narrative whilst ensuring the right regulatory and oversight arrangements are in place across the country.”

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