Children in Care - Public Accounts Contents

Conclusions and Recommendations

1.  The Department is best placed to lead improvements in the quality of care and stability of placements, but it is reluctant to take on this role. There are many bodies, including local authorities and Ofsted, involved in the care system and we do not expect the Department to do everything. However there are some oversight functions only the Department can fulfil and others where it is the best placed body to lead improvements in care. Unless the Department steps up and embraces this role the system will not improve. The Department agrees that it can set statutory duties for local authorities and intervene if they fail. But it is reluctant to accept it has a role in setting expectations for service performance, taking an overview of the market for care services, or using data to hold local authorities to account and to intervene and support local authorities before they fail Ofsted inspections. Leaving poor services to fester has meant that the Department has had to intervene in 21 local authorities. The Department does collect data but apart from making it available it fails to use this data to promote what works and to support local authorities that are struggling.

Recommendation: The Department for Education should set out how it will lead and work with others to improve the outcomes for children by improving the quality of care.

2.  The Department has watered down its responsibility for holding local authorities to account for their performance. The Department's 2012 Accountability System Statement clearly stated that it had a responsibility for holding local authorities to account for their performance in providing services for children in care. A week after we took evidence, the Department published a revised accountability statement. The Department has since written to us to explain that it had not shared the proposed revisions with us because it judged that "the updated version did not contain major changes" and it did not therefore believe that Parliament would want an explanation. However, the revised statement removes any reference to the Department holding local authorities to account for their performance on children in care, and downplays the Department's role in leading the sector to improve. These are the very issues on which we had clearly expressed concerns during our evidence session with the Department, and we therefore regard the updated statement as a significant change.

Recommendation: The Department has undertaken to carefully consider our comments for the next version of its Accountability System Statement.

·  In the next version of its Accountability Statement the Department should either re-instate the reference to its responsibility for holding local authorities to account for their performance or at least make clearer precisely how it is discharging this responsibility.

·  In view of the Department having ignored our obvious interest when publishing its revised statement in January 2015, we expect the Department to publish a revised statement in the near future, which takes account of our concerns. Therefore, alongside its Treasury Minute response to this report, the Department should provide us with an update and explanation of revisions proposed in light of our report.

3.  Too few children are getting the right placement first time and too many are placed away from their home area. Of children in care on 31 March 2013, 34% had had more than one placement during the year, and 14% of foster children and 34% of children in residential care were placed more than 20 miles from home. Neither measure has improved in recent years, despite these factors being absolutely fundamental to the best interests of the child and in ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. Too little attention has been placed on improving commissioning and the department has done too little to ensure that the market works in the interest of children.

Recommendation: The Department should set out a strategy and a timetable for improving the commissioning of all care places, including specialised care places.

4.  The quality and experience of social workers is central to improving outcomes for children. Local authority social workers make the key decisions about placing children in care. But there is a continuing shortage of professional social workers and many authorities rely on too many agency staff. The training of social workers in too many cases still fails to prepare them properly for the practical work they have to undertake.

Recommendation: The Department should set out how it will attract more high calibre people to social work and how it will ensure that training is relevant to their work.

5.  The Department does not use the rich data it does collect from local authorities about the patterns of care for children to improve local accountability and drive improvement across the system. Local authorities submit a huge quantity of data to the Department about the number of children in care, the type and number of their placements and whether each child has had the necessary health checks. The Department publishes annual performance tables on a set of measures, which includes all looked-after children, but it is far from being the clear and easily accessible information that should be available to the layperson. The Department does publish more user-friendly scorecards on each local authority's performance on adoption but does not do the same for the quality of foster and residential services. The adoption scorecards do offer local people accessible information and the Government should build on this to provide more accessible information on all looked-after children.

Recommendation: As it has for adoption, the Department should publish information against its key indicators for local people showing how well their council performs on foster and residential care compared to others. This should be in an easy to find and user-friendly format, to support local accountability.

6.  The current system of inspection inhibits Ofsted from playing a full role in preventing the failure of local services. Ofsted inspects local authority's children's services against a framework underpinned by the regulations and standards set by the Department. The Department considers that Ofsted's reports on inspections of children's services are the best way to hold local authorities to account for their performance in delivering quality care and will intervene if Ofsted rates services as inadequate. But Ofsted only routinely inspects each local authority every three years and, in the time between inspections, the Department is not using the data it collects from local authorities to identify poor performance, to intervene early or to instruct Ofsted to inspect. Ofsted is keen to inspect children's services more regularly, and would welcome being instructed to do so if the Department's data indicated things are going wrong. Ofsted strongly felt that either the Department or Ofsted should work with local authorities to improve their performance, in the same way as agencies work with underperforming schools.

Recommendation: The Department should:

·  reconsider the frequency of Ofsted inspections of children's services to ensure early identification and intervention and ensure that Ofsted and the Department use available data to monitor the performance of individual providers and local authorities in a timely fashion; and

·  reconsider its own role and explore the scope for involving Ofsted in improving local authorities' performance between inspections, so that Ofsted and/or the Department play a stronger role in preventing failure, and protecting vulnerable children.

7.  There is no clarity about who is responsible for leading the identification and dissemination of good practice. The Department accepts that there is a shortage of easily available, good practice on what works in caring for children. Where there is good local practice, it is not disseminated well, although the Department considers that it shares good practice "when it sees it". To its credit, Ofsted has taken it upon itself to run best practice programmes with the 55% of local authorities inspected so far that require improvement, using effective practice identified at good local authorities. The Department has introduced the Innovation Programme to test new practices.

Recommendation: The Department must broker agreement (between itself, and, among others, the Local Government Association, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Ofsted) about how they will share responsibility for leading on the identification and dissemination of good practice, including that generated by the Innovation Programme, and how it will go about spreading effective practice.

8.  The Department has recently introduced initiatives to improve educational outcomes for children in care, such as virtual school heads, but it does not know whether its initiatives are working. We agree with Ofsted that the gap in educational attainment between children in care and their peers remains shockingly wide. For example, at GCSE level, the gap in attainment was 38% in 2008/09, but was 43% in 2012/13. In response, the Department now requires all local authorities to appoint a virtual school head—to champion the educational ambitions on behalf of the authorities' children in care—and it has doubled the pupil premium for children in care. However, the Department has not evaluated whether these changes are having a positive impact. Instead, it says it will wait to see if there are overall improvements in educational attainment, an indicator that it publishes on a regular basis. The Department's approach mean that it does not evaluate the impact of the spending it mandates of others.

Recommendation: When the Department mandates or directs local authorities to take action and spend public money, it must then take an interest in the outcomes, and develop measures of success, evaluate progress and plan for sharing what proves to be successful, or otherwise, with councils.

9.  Without accurate, complete and comparable data about the cost of services provided for children in care, the Department cannot hold local authorities to account effectively or test value for money. Many local authorities prefer children to be looked after by their own foster parents or in residential homes. They perceive in-house services to be cheaper than places provided by the private or voluntary sector. But it is not clear that local authority care is cheaper and there are wide variations in how much a council pays for foster care—from £15,000 to £73,000 a place, a year. Higher costs are also not necessarily related to higher quality care. The Department admits that it does not understand the reasons for differences in costs and acknowledges that it needs to know more. The Department believes its guidance to councils is clear, but there is no consensus among local authorities on how to cost services or complete data returns. The Department and other organisations have benchmarking tools and cost calculators, but they are not widely used and until councils see benefits from the data they provide, it is unlikely that the quality of data will improve.

Recommendation: The Department should work with local authorities and the Department for Communities and Local Government to secure reliable, comparable data on costs, and use it alongside existing performance indicators to develop assessments of value for money that are useful both for local authorities and central government.

10.  Finding children who go missing from care, including victims of child sex exploitation, and then keeping them safe is made more difficult by the lack of a national register. Children who go missing for extended periods of time are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. There is no regularly updated, national register of missing children. The separate lists that are held locally by the police and local authorities on missing children do not contain the same names. With a national register, Ofsted could more easily identify and then inspect local areas that may be failing to stop children from going missing and keeping them safe. When local authorities in England need to find a secure welfare placement to protect a child from child sex exploitation, they separately phone round homes right across the country, sometimes including Scotland too, until they find a place. As child sex exploitation is being more widely identified it would make sense for one organisation to commission and coordinate secure welfare places so that children can be placed quickly at an appropriate distance.

Recommendation: The Department should set out how it intends to facilitate central commissioning of secure places for the victims of child sex exploitation and the construction of a national database of missing children, and by when.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 11 March 2015