Auditors highlight “extremely disappointing” progress on child protection

12 Oct 16

Actions taken by the Department for Education since 2010 to improve the quality of local child protection services have been “extremely disappointing”, the National Audit Office said today.

In a report released today, the NAO also said that, nationally, the quality of help and protection for children was unsatisfactory and inconsistent, and suggested this represented systemic rather than just local failure.

In 2010, the DfE commissioned the Munro Review to assess how the child protection system could be improved. It accepted most of the recommendations from the report, and began to publish and collect more information to help local authorities assess their performance.

The department also launched a programme to reform social work, revised statuary guidance, established the first two children’s social care trusts, and provided over £100m funding for the Innovation Programme, with the aim of encouraging new approaches and sharing good practice.

In July 2016, the department published its plans to transform all children’s services by 2020. The department’s goal is that all vulnerable children receive the same quality of care and support, regardless of where they live. 

However, the NAO today reported that spending on children’s social work, including child protection, varies widely across England, and bears no relationship to quality. The average spent on a child in need annually is £2,300 per year. This has increased slightly over the last three years. However, average spending on social work in 2014-15 ranged from an estimated £340 per child in need in one authority, to £4,970 per child in need in another. According to the NAO, neither the DfE nor local authorities can explain this variation in spending.

Moreover, children in different parts of the country do not get the same access to help or protection. Auditors found that thresholds for accessing services were not always well understood or applied by local partners such as the police and health services. According to Ofsted, some local thresholds were set too high or low, leading to inappropriate referrals or children left at risk. There were also very wide variations between local authorities in the rates of referrals accepted, re-referrals, children in need and repeat child protection plans.

Demand for help or protection is also on the rise. In 2013-14, there were 2.3 million initial contacts, which represents a rise of 65% since 2007/08. Over the past 10 years, there had been an 124% increase in serious cases where the local authority believes a child might be suffering, or likely to suffer, serious harm.

Auditors found that the DfE had no data on outcomes for children who have been in need, except for educational performance. They concluded that the DfE and authorities therefore do not understand which approaches provide the most effective help and protection.

Commenting on the findings, NAO head Amyas Morse said: “Six years have passed since the department recognised that children’s services were not good enough. It is extremely disappointing that, after all its efforts, far too many children’s services are still not good enough.

He added: “To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020 the department will need to inject more energy, pace and determination in delivering on its responsibilities.”

Commenting on the findings, Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, note that less than a quarter of children’s services were now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.

“[This is] over a period in which child protection reform and improvement has been largely removed from local government and increasingly centralised within Whitehall instead. It’s vital to examine how DfE initiatives imposed on local authorities, such as children's services trusts, are evaluated to check whether they are doing a better job of looking after vulnerable children, and use that evidence to develop future initiatives in partnership with councils,” he said.

Watts added that “inadequate” ratings handed out by Ofsted made it incredibly difficult for councils to turn services round, as media vilification, resignations and reputational damage created a tough climate for recruitment.

A DfE spokesman said: “Keeping children safe from harm is an absolute priority for this Government, which is why in July this year we published plans to deliver excellent children’s social care – strengthening protection for the most vulnerable children and transforming the support available to them.

“We are taking tough action to drive up standards in children’s services across the country, stepping in when councils aren’t doing well enough and linking them up with better performing local authorities to share best practice. We have also cut red tape so that social workers can spend more time actually supporting families.”


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