Children in Care - Public Accounts Contents

2  Using data

13. The Department recognised that there were shortcomings in data received from local authorities about how much they spend on foster and residential care. The Department considered that its guidance to councils on how to fill in the return was clear, but there is no consensus among them on how to report spending or complete their returns. The Local Government Association has asked the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy to investigate how the data can be improved.[28] The Department's and others' tools for benchmarking the costs of care are not widely used. The Department described it as a chicken-and-egg problem: if the data in benchmarking tools were not useful, then local authorities had no incentive to improve the quality of data they provided.[29]

14. The Department collects a huge amount of data on spending and individual children. The Association of Directors of Children's services estimated that local authorities make 11 major statutory returns to Government with information relating to children. Local authorities submit data on each child in care, for example, their age or the type of placement they are in, and the total amount spent on their children's social care functions.[30] The Association told us that collecting more data with which to monitor local authority performance was unnecessary. Instead, a suite of about 25 to 30 indicators of children's experiences, collected from parents, children and carers, could give a picture of the broad health of a local authority's provision for children in social care.[31]

15. The Department does not use its national database on all children in care to challenge individual local authorities to improve their performance, hold councils to account, understand how different patterns of care affect outcomes for children, or assess what constitutes value for money.[32] Although its own Accountability System Statement, dated September 2012, clearly states that it has responsibility for managing the performance of local authorities, the Department has no indicators that accurately measure the efficacy of the care system. The Department told us that Ofsted inspection reports are the best way to hold local authorities to account but these do not fully assess all aspects of quality.[33] The Care Leavers' Association reported that 'fuzzy' lines of accountability mean that children and young people face a postcode lottery as different local authorities provide different services and experiences. Ofsted's opinion is that poor local accountability is a cause of the 'shockingly wide' gap in educational attainment.[34] The Department relies on Ofsted inspection reports to tell it about outcomes for children, but these do not assess value for money.[35]

16. We heard that local people are not well-supported in holding their councils to account for the quality of foster and residential services. For adoption the Department produces user-friendly scorecards for each local authority that sets out the average time taken for different stages of the adoption process. There is no equivalent for foster and residential care, setting out, for example, how well their local authority compares to others on how often children change placement, their educational outcomes and receipt of health checks. The Department does publish annual Microsoft Excel performance tables on a set of measures on the pan-government website, GOV.UK, 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.[36]

17. Ofsted told us that, for schools, it has helped to improve standards by making benchmarking data available to them in an accessible and useful form. Ofsted use the data themselves to spot if things are going badly wrong at a school, and if so it will inspect more regularly. With children's services, Ofsted has to wait for the Department to request an inspection outside of the three yearly scheduled visit.[37] Ofsted told us that it would like the same inspection principles that apply to under-performing schools to be applied to children's services; namely, that the Department use its data to identify quickly when local authority services were faltering, and instruct Ofsted to inspect more regularly.[38]

18. In the health sector, Monitor promptly challenges hospitals when their performance information suggests things are starting to drift. However, Ofsted has to rely on the Department to intervene when it finds that a local authority is not meeting the required standards. As an inspector, Ofsted cannot intervene itself.[39] The Department told us that it does not intervene based on its analysis of data provided by local authorities. The Department was intervening at 21 local authorities at the time of our hearing, following Ofsted inspections.[40]

  1. Ofsted reported that it runs best practice programmes with the 55% of inspected local authorities that require improvement, and that this was proving to be very successful. It does not, however, use the Department's expertise when doing so.[41] The Department's data about the services provided to children in care, cannot yet be matched to Ofsted's assessment of the quality of care so the Department cannot say if children with the highest needs are placed in the best quality care.[42]

28   Q 127; C&AG's Report, paras 3.8-3.9 Back

29   Q 128; C&AG's Report, para 3.18 Back

30   Q 19; C&AG's Report, para 1.4 Back

31   Qq 20-23 Back

32   Q 157; C&AG's Report, paras 1.30, 2.4 Back

33   Qq 113, 130; C&AG's Report, paras 1.3, 2.4, 2.33 Back

34   Qq 4-5, 107 Back

35   Qq 113, 130; C&AG's Report, para 2.33 Back

36   Qq 111-113, C&AG's report, para 2.39 Back

37   Qq 125, 153 Back

38   Qq 125, 199 Back

39   Qq 78, 199 Back

40   Qq 81, 116; C&AG's Report, para 2.38 Back

41   Qq 178-179 Back

42   C&AG's Report, para 2.35 Back

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Prepared 11 March 2015