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Children’s social care in over half of local authorities not good enough, reports Ofsted

Report ‘tells a partial and excessively negative story’, say Directors of Children’s Services

Many local authorities and their partners are struggling to provide a good enough standard of help, care and protection for some of England's most vulnerable children, Ofsted's second annual social care report states. The report highlights the difficulties authorities are facing within a children's social care system under pressure, with increasing demand for services and continued intense public scrutiny.

However, Alan Wood, President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said that it was 'simply not credible' to suggest that the services of over 70% of authorities are not yet good enough.'

Ofsted's findings draw on over 5,600 inspections of a range of crucial social care services, including local authority children's services, children's homes, fostering services, adoption support agencies, secure training centres, and residential family centres.

Although some authorities are performing well under difficult circumstances, over half of the local authorities inspected for their children's social care provision in 2013/14 are not yet good enough. Of 43 inspections, seven authorities were found to be inadequate, with a further 26 requiring improvement. Ten areas were judged to provide a good standard of care and protection for children and young people.

The report, nevertheless, highlights that despite numerous challenges, there are areas of high quality practice demonstrating what can be achieved.

In these authorities judged to be good, inspectors found:

The 26 authorities judged to require improvement were not consistently demonstrating this kind of good practice across all their work. While children were not immediately at risk, inspectors often found that managers were not overseeing practice consistently, and there was inconsistent challenge and support for social workers.

The number of authorities judged inadequate remains broadly in line with previous years. The picture is unsettled however, with authorities rated inadequate changing over time, and some declining rapidly. Today's report therefore raises the question of how best to ensure effective oversight of the performance of authorities between Ofsted inspections.

Many of the inspected authorities which Ofsted considered to be weaker shared problems, in particular a lack of early and direct action to support families. Effective intervention at the earliest opportunity can support children before problems within families escalate and damage becomes irreparable, but – as highlighted in a thematic inspection which is also published today – many areas had missed earlier opportunities to intervene or lacked clarity on who had the responsibility to do so.

The report also raises significant concerns about the weakness of Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) in making sure partners work together to tackle safeguarding issues. Around three-quarters of those reviewed by Ofsted to date have been found to be less than good, including eight that were rated inadequate. Ofsted is calling on the government to clarify and strengthen the role and responsibilities of LSCBs to ensure effective oversight and action at a local level.

Volatility in the sector continues to cause concern - maintaining consistent leadership in children's services is a challenge for many areas. Over the last year a third of local authorities had at least one change of Director of Children's Services.

In a separate report Ofsted looks in-depth at the leadership of children's social care services, with a focus on authorities previously found to be good or outstanding and those that had improved from inadequate. The aim is to learn from them but also to highlight their success in a sector that, all too often, focuses on short-term reactions to terrible tragedy.

The report also finds that over the past year the proportion of good and adequate children's homes has remained relatively constant, at 56% and 24%, respectively. Disappointingly, the proportion of inadequate homes has increased from 5% to 6% and the proportion of outstanding homes has reduced from 16% to 12%. From April 2015, Ofsted's new framework for the inspection of children's homes will focus even more on outcomes for children and the quality of care they receive.

The annual report finds that high profile cases and increased awareness of child sexual exploitation mean that overall leaders are giving more strategic priority to the needs of children at risk of being exploited. However, some services are not yet sufficiently alert to the risks which children and young people face, or equipped to provide responsive services to meet their needs. Worryingly, responses to looked after children who go missing are still lacking, despite this group being particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Ofsted has strengthened its focus on child sexual exploitation and on children who go missing in all single inspections. Inspectors are clear that local authorities should be found inadequate if they are not doing all they can to identify and tackle these issues. A specialist team of Her Majesty's Inspectors with expertise in child sexual exploitation has also been created to support inspections where it appears that the local authority is not effectively addressing the risk of child sexual exploitation.

Along with fellow inspectorates for the police, probation and health services, Ofsted has also announced that it will be introducing targeted joint local area inspections later this year to assess how well agencies work together to protect children. The new inspections will be targeted on specific areas or issues of concern, such as child sexual exploitation.

Commenting on the publication of Ofsted's annual social care report, Alan Wood, President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said:

"Our members value the robust and effective inspection of our services as part of the continuous improvement journey and we welcome some of the more constructive comments made about the services we lead and deliver in this report. We are pleased that the challenges we face from rapidly increasing demands and reducing resources have been acknowledged and the fact that a number of authorities are making significant progress in improving outcomes for some of our most vulnerable children and young people has been recognised.

"Regrettably, because this is largely a progress report on the new model for social care inspection, the Single Inspection Framework (SIF), and because we believe the SIF is flawed, the same applies to this report. The UK has one of the safest child protection systems in the developed world yet the results of the SIF inspections undertaken to date suggest that the services of over 70% of authorities are not yet good enough. This is simply not credible. We believe this framework does not get to the heart of how well services are working, and, with a single worded judgement it tells a partial and excessively negative story, which runs the risk of weakening the very services it seeks to improve.

"We have no difficulty being held to public account, and where the evidence is clear that an authority is failing, robust action must be taken to secure rapid improvement. That is why we have been, and will continue, working closely with Ofsted to secure an inspection system which helps all of us to improve, including the inspectorates."

The annual report is here. Ofsted's report into leadership is here.

12/3/15