Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

7  The performance framework for the care system

211. Inspection of Children's Services is undergoing a major transition. Triennial Joint Area Reviews of services for children will be replaced from April 2009 by a Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) looking at all public services across each area once every three years. Annual Performance Assessments—paper-based assessments of outcomes—will no longer take place. Progress against the new National Indicator Set (NIS) for local authorities, which is intended to replace all previous performance indicators, will form part of the evidence used in CAA judgements. The NIS will also help to inform a new performance profile of outcomes and services for children and young people in each local authority area, which will be reviewed quarterly; the first of these profiles will be published in June 2009. An overall rating will be published annually.[593]

212. The NIS contains 11 indicators that make particular reference to looked-after children or care leavers, covering the following aspects of local authority performance:

  • educational attainment (NI 99, 100, 101; mandatory in Local Area Agreements);
  • emotional and behavioural health of children in care (NI 58);
  • timeliness of adoption placements (NI 61);
  • placement stability (NI 62, 63);
  • completion of case reviews within required timescales (NI 66);
  • numbers of children who run away from home or care overnight (NI 71);
  • accommodation for care leavers (NI 147);
  • employment, education and training of care leavers (NI 148).

Of the eight indicators relating to looked-after children which local authorities can choose to include in their Local Area Agreements, one has been chosen by 29 councils (NI 63), one by 16 councils (NI 62), and the others by 8 councils or fewer.[594] At the national level, these indicators are subsumed into a range of Departmental Strategic Objectives and Public Service Agreements.

213. The Minister told us that, alongside CAAs,

    […]because of the incredibly important role of the corporate parent, the programme of inspection led by Ofsted for services for looked-after children and safeguarding services for children will continue to have a specific and detailed inspection every three years […] While all the other inspections are being unified into a streamlined process for light-touch local authority inspection, we are maintaining an intensive and important three-year inspection process for children's services[595]

These three-year "full" inspections of safeguarding and looked-after children's services will be supplemented by annual, unannounced inspections of contact, assessment and referral arrangements for children's social care, including their impact on minimising the incidence of child abuse and neglect. Inspectors will not normally be on site for more than two days for these annual visits. Where the annual inspections raise serious concerns, the full inspection can be brought forward in response. Evidence from Local Safeguarding Children's Boards, of Serious Case Review evaluations, or whistleblowers, could also be considered grounds for bringing forward the full inspection.[596]

214. We questioned Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, about the lessons that could be learned about inspection of children's services, particularly safeguarding, in the wake of the Baby P case. Haringey children's services had received an Annual Performance Assessment (APA) rating of "good" in 2007, the year Baby P died. Christine Gilbert acknowledged the reliance of the APA on data provided by the local authority and other partners, and sought to provide reassurance about Ofsted's future approach, telling us, "I have no time for a tick-box approach, and statistics are no substitute for inspections."[597] No grading judgements on services will in future be issued without some form of on-the-ground investigation.[598] At the same time, she warned that inspections only give a snapshot of services: "Things do not stand still; they get worse or better."[599]

215. While we welcome the move away from desk-based assessments and the high profile of safeguarding and looked-after children's services in the new inspection regime, we nonetheless have concerns about the new arrangements and their potential to restore public confidence in inspection following events in Haringey. We fear that the increased emphasis on self-assessment and light-touch, "proportionate" inspections in schools and children's services as a whole is exerting an inappropriate influence on the inspection of children's social care. In particular, it may lead to unwise over-reliance on the National Indicator Set as a barometer of authorities' ability to keep children safe. There is potential for quarterly updates of performance profiles to engender false confidence, and this practice seems to be at odds with the Chief Inspector's reassurance that on-the-ground investigation will be a prerequisite for passing judgement on services. We recommend that ways of promoting more frequent, informal contact between inspectors and local authorities be explored, such as designating a named inspector for each authority who would make regular visits.

216. We were concerned to hear from Christine Gilbert that Ofsted routinely destroy the evidence on which reports and APA letters are based three months after publication, particularly in the light of information about the time it can take to produce a Serious Case Review.[600] We consider that the evidence on which performance assessments are based should be retained by Ofsted for at least three years after publication.

217. The Minister told us, "We have pockets of good practice and an inspection regime coming into play that I expect to bring up the level of less good practice to the best."[601] The Government clearly sets great store by inspection not only as an accountability mechanism but as a driver for service improvement. However it is not obvious to us that this is currently a function which Ofsted is equipped to perform.[602] Christine Gilbert told us that it is the role of Children's Services Advisers in Government Offices, not Ofsted, to "challenge and support local authorities".[603] We recommend that the Government reassess how the new inspection regime for children's services can be made a more effective vehicle for spreading good practice, perhaps through the inclusion of a peer review element, or whether a different mechanism is needed. Ofsted must also improve the representation of officers with extensive social work experience in its senior leadership positions.

Ensuring that the most important things are measured

218. We heard from Colin Green, ADCS safeguarding spokesperson, about the potentially pernicious effects of performance indicators:

    […]the pressure on local authorities to collect that information and perform in relation to it can become over-dominant. […] In an ideal world […] if people do the right things to try to improve what they achieve for children and young people, their performance indicators should follow behind. What can happen under pressure is that they end up chasing the indicator, not focusing on the outcomes for children and young people.[604]

Children themselves worry about indicators and targets, we heard, "because of the risk of targets and indicators becoming the same thing […] and being applied at an individual level".[605] Indicators measuring placement stability fail to take into account the fact that a change of placement can sometimes be in a child's best interests, and may be a planned part of the package of care.[606] The Children's Rights Director, Dr Roger Morgan, reported children contacting his office to say that they are being moved from their placement to meet the authority's objectives rather than because it is the right move for them personally.[607] In certain circumstances, a change of school or an out-of-area placement might help a child escape a difficult environment or access the most appropriate provision, and policies must be flexible enough to recognise that.[608] Roger Morgan told us that, "It boils down to trying to avoid making some of those global assumptions and going back to individualisation of decision-making in care."[609]

219. Professor Ian Sinclair expressed the view that the current performance framework for the care system is characterised by "a lack of being really clear about what things really matter".[610] He explained:

    Part of the difficulty lies in the enormous amount of inspection effort that goes on the managerial aspects of the system, rather than its quality. An enormous number of different things are measured, and there is a great variety of measurement, but the failure to say that certain things really matter and that we will home in on them to try to get everybody up to a high standard across the board works against that inspection effort. If you said, 'Well the key thing is the quality of the care in the individual places,' the quality of the quality assurance system in local authorities would be key. How do they know what that quality is? […] in fact, so many messages are going out [about what aspects to measure] that you can pick and choose to some extent—there is a great variety […].[611]

Several witnesses remained unconvinced that performance indicators are an effective means of assessing and improving the quality of placements and relationships between children and carers.[612] Research by Professor Sinclair and others concludes that Government target measures do not tell us much about how well children are doing, because they rely on "proxies" that are "easier to measure than well-being, and may or may not relate closely to it."[613] Steve Goodman of Hackney Council commented that "process matters are important—but they do not get to the nub of outcomes for looked-after children."[614]

220. Children and young people in care are clear that many of the things that are most important to them are not those that can be legislated for or measured by performance indicators. They are the sort of everyday details overlooked by careless corporate parents, who fail to grasp the often low-key ways in which looked-after children are deprived of personal care and attention: having photographs of themselves and their family, having someone attend sports day to cheer them on, or turning up to parents' evening to find out how they are doing at school.[615] Barnardo's pointed out that "these measures cost very little, but require workers and professionals to put the same value on them as young people do".[616] The issue, said Pam Hibbert of Barnardo's, is how to make front-line workers and local authorities responsible for those things.[617]

221. One answer may be to include measurements of children's levels of satisfaction with their care in the performance framework. Pam Hibbert pointed out that

    […]if we were providing a service to any other group of people, we would look very much at their satisfaction levels […] When children leave care to return home or leave as young adults, an independent person should give them a real opportunity to be frank about their satisfaction with the service that they received. Key performance indicators are for local authorities and do not necessarily involve those who are receiving the service.[618]

The Minister told us:

    The needs of the child or young person, as articulated by them, must be central and must be listened to and taken into account. I think that that is a fundamental shift that has happened in recent years. The system will take time to absorb that shift fully, but we will press that as hard as we can from the Department.[619]

222. Processes and outcomes are both important, but if what we are primarily concerned about is how happy children are in care, then we need to do more to assess quality of placements and quality of relationships. We believe that quality assessment and children's satisfaction with their care are undervalued by the current performance regime. Good parenting is a response to a child's individual needs and personality. It seems unlikely that blanket indicators can effectively incentivise the sort of individualisation that is needed in decisions about children's care. By measuring children's satisfaction with their care we may get closer to finding out how happy they are with what the state is providing for them, and how "cared about" they really feel. There is at present too much emphasis on measuring processes in the care system and not enough on assessing its quality. The quality of decision-making and the quality of relationships are difficult things to measure, but they are fundamental to the success of the care system. To help address this problem, children's satisfaction with the care they receive—independently sought and expressed—should feature prominently in performance indicators and assessments of the care system both locally and nationally.

The annual 'stocktake'

223. The Care Matters White Paper proposed the introduction of an annual "ministerial stocktake" for the care system to "review progress in improving outcomes for children in care with key stakeholders and representatives of local government, health and young people in care."[620] The first such stocktake is planned to take place in 2009. Roger Morgan and Maxine Wrigley (A National Voice) argued strongly that the Stocktake should be based very much on children's own views and opinions, solicited by an independent agency.[621] We look forward to examining the first of the annual ministerial 'Stocktakes' of the care system, and we welcome the focus and priority this process promises to place on how well the whole state is performing as a corporate parent. We recommend that children's views and their satisfaction with the care system should form a crucial part of the evidence used in the Stocktake. In order that Government as a whole can be held to account for its performance, the Stocktake must involve the Home Office and Ministry of Justice as well as the Department of Health and Department for Communities and Local Government.

224. Professor Mike Stein told us that "the way we measure performance does not do justice to the progress made by many young people who are looked after or who have been in care."[622] Performance indicators, especially educational ones, are a poor guide to the progress that children can make in care as they fail to take into account a child's starting point, privilege certain markers of educational achievement over general wellbeing, and do not capture the experience of care leavers later in adulthood.[623] He told us, "I am not against [performance indicators] being used, but we use them as the only measure of progress. Some young people make an enormous journey just by re-engaging with education when they are 14 or 15."[624] The present performance framework is insufficiently flexible to allow the progress children make in care to be captured. The Stocktake should promote a comprehensive view of outcomes for young people who have been in care (up to age 25).

225. There are some worrying gaps in the information that is available about the care population in England. The Refugee Children's Consortium highlighted the limited availability of data on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the UK; there are no official national figures on the numbers of refugee children in school, the number who go on to higher education, the number who get in trouble with the law, or the number of trafficked children who go missing.[625] There is also as yet no definitive national data set for the proportion of young people in the youth justice system with looked-after status, although the Youth Justice Board believes it may be possible to collect this from 2009-10.[626] Di Hart of NCB commented, "we do not know who these children are or where they are. Because of the way services are inspected, they are not picked out. We do not know anything about their outcomes in relation to other young offenders."[627] John Hill of the What Makes The Difference? Project told us that local authorities gather information about the circumstances of care leavers up to age 21 (for whom they must provide personal advisers), but that the Government only collates it at age 19.[628]

226. We consider that lack of data about some sections of the care population, and care leavers, compromises the corporate parenting task. The Stocktake should be used as an opportunity to fill some of the gaps in data relating to looked-after children; specifically, the lack of information about the circumstances and outcomes of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and about looked-after children in the criminal justice system.

227. The Government's publication of a Young Runaways Action Plan in June 2008 was a welcome recognition of the need for better partnership working between local authorities, the police and other agencies to prevent and respond to the estimated 100,000 cases of children going missing from home or care each year.[629] Better data collection, both through a new police code of practice and local authority National Indicator 71, should improve local and national responses to this issue, and we welcome the Government's commitment to monitoring and reviewing whether this is the case.[630] In particular we expect that such information will be used to analyse the specific factors that lead children in care to run away, including the role played by failures of placement and contact planning and a failure to protect children from sexual exploitation. We are pleased that data on children missing from care will be included in the Stocktake, and we look forward to seeing evidence of improved performance in this area.

593   Ofsted, Comprehensive Area Assessment: assessing children's services and adult learning, February 2009 Back

594   www.idea.gov.uk Back

595   Q 554 Back

596   Ofsted, Comprehensive Area Assessment, February 2009 Back

597   Transcript of uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Children, Schools and Families Committee, The Work of Ofsted, 10 December 2008, HC 70-i (Session 2008-09), Q 212 [Christine Gilbert] Back

598   Ibid., Q 282 Back

599   Ibid., Q 246 Back

600   Ibid., Q 252 Back

601   Q 561 Back

602   Neil Weeks, Fitter for the future? The new accountability framework (Children's Services Network, February 2009) Back

603   Transcript of uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Children, Schools and Families Committee, The Work of Ofsted, 10 December 2008, HC 70-i (Session 2008-09), Q 283 ff. Back

604   Qq 636-8 Back

605   Q 21 Back

606   Qq 314-5 [Professor Sinclair] Back

607   Q 21 Back

608   Q 14 [Dr Morgan]; Ev 82 [Care Matters Partnership] Back

609   Q 14 Back

610   Qq 124-5 Back

611   Q 124 Back

612   Q 123 [Professor Sinclair]; Q 511 [Pauline Newman]; Q 637-8 [Colin Green]; Q 638 [Henrietta Heawood] Back

613   Sinclair et al, The Pursuit of Permanence, p 307 ff. Back

614   Q 511 Back

615   Q 10 [Pam Hibbert]; Q 21 [Maxine Wrigley] Back

616   Ev 2 Back

617   Q 10 Back

618   Q 21 Back

619   Q 577 Back

620   Care Matters White Paper, para 1.24 Back

621   Q 21 Back

622   Q 309 Back

623   Q 277 Back

624   Q 309 Back

625   Q 366; Ev 194 Back

626   Q 338-40; Ev 195 Back

627   Q 313 Back

628   Q 310 Back

629   HC Deb, 9 Jan 2008, col 305; DCSF, Young Runaways Action Plan, June 2008 Back

630   HC Deb, 20 June 2008, col 1260 Back

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