9.We asked the Department for Education (the Department) what it expected an improved child protection system to look like, in 2020, in terms of the overall quality of services. The Department said it wanted to see fewer local authorities judged by Ofsted as Inadequate and a significant reduction in the current number of 60 councils that Require Improvement to be Good. When pressed the Department told us that its focus would be to reduce the number of Inadequate local authorities because those were the ones failing children, although it still could not give us a more precise target.
10.We also asked the Department to set out year by year how it planned to reach its goal in 2020 for all vulnerable children in England to receive the same high quality care and support. However, the Department could only describe its plans for 2017. These plans included setting up a What Works Centre; completing baseline information on the quality of local services; and starting to use data already collected to identify the risk of failing services. The Department could not tell us about its more detailed plans for 2018 and 2019. However, it did tell us that between 2017 and 2020 it aimed to assess and accredit all 30,000 social workers in England. The Department acknowledged that, as the National Audit Office had recommended, its strategy up to 2020 would need to be underpinned by more detailed plans, including the Department’s capacity and capability to deliver them.
11.Ofsted had aimed to inspect all 152 local authorities by November 2016 but will not complete this until the end of 2017 under its current inspection cycle for children’s services. By 25 August 2016, Ofsted had published inspection reports for 103 out of 152 local authorities and found 20% of local authorities services for children in need of help or protection were Inadequate. We were concerned that Ofsted was taking a year longer than planned to inspect children’s services, particularly as the Department relies solely on Ofsted to measure quality, and so does not have a comprehensive picture of performance across the country. As some local authorities have not been inspected since 2011, there could be more failing services out there and we questioned why getting Ofsted to inspect services as quickly as possible had not been a priority for the Department.
12.The Department explained that Ofsted’s inspection was taking longer than expected due to the number of inspectors it had available adding that it took six months, on average, to train an inspector. The Department told us that it had asked Ofsted whether additional funding would help to solve the problem. However, Ofsted’s view was that it was not a question of funding but simply the time taken to recruit and train sufficient expertise to carry out inspections. Oftsed wants to ensure that “all local authorities were subject to the same robust inspection of children social care services which would form a substantial baseline of performance which was unrivalled by previous inspection programmes”. Ofsted also highlighted that since November 2013 it had launched joint targeted area inspections with the Care Quality Commission and HM Inspectorates of Constabulary and Probation, which had added to the burden on its workforce.
13.The Department assured us that only 29 local authorities had not been inspected at all since 2013, as some poor authorities had been inspected by Ofsted in 2013 for help and protection services, under a comparable inspection framework. Of these 29, there were 25 that had been judged to be Good for either their safeguarding capacity or their capacity to improve safeguarding when they were last inspected. The Department added that it shared information with Ofsted but it was for the inspectorate to judge in which order to go into local authorities. However, we reminded the Department that in 2015 Ofsted’s Chief Inspector had told the previous Committee that he would be “quite happy to inspect on a more regular basis, on the instructions of the Department, if they have the data to identify when things are going badly wrong”.
14.The Department formally intervenes, using its statutory powers, when Ofsted judges a local authority’s services to be Inadequate because the authority has failed to protect children or left them at risk. The Department told us that in 2014 it had started collecting data, for the first time, on agency staff, turnover rates and caseloads. The Department therefore now knows for example that there are 5,070 agency staff and the rate of turnover of staff is 16%, but it did not have this information before 2014. The Department accepts there is some correlation between its data on children’s social workers and Ofsted’s judgements of local authority’s services ratings; in authorities judged Good, the average rate of agency staff was 7%, compared with 22% in authorities judged Inadequate.
15.However, the Department does not use its workforce information, or other lead indicators it has been collecting since before 2014, such as on re-referral rates and repeat child protection plans to anticipate problems and intervene before services fail. Ofsted told the previous Committee that it was important that the Department collected data on a regular basis so that it could intervene much more quickly when things started to go wrong. The Department has accepted the National Audit Office’s recommendation to develop its intervention regime so that it uses lead indicators more effectively.
16.The Department plans to open a What Works centre and added that such an arrangement did not currently exist because “best practice has not been there to be mined and disseminated”. The centre will not open until 2017 at the earliest, although previously the Department has announced it planned to open the centre before the end of 2016. However, with only 23% of local authorities judged to provide Good services by Ofsted, the Department acknowledged it needed more Good local authorities with good practice to help fix the ones that were not good. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services gave us the example of Essex County Council and other good and better-performing authorities which are helping other local authorities. Essex County Council was currently working in about six or seven other local authorities. We were interested to know whether there had ever been a golden age of children’s social work. The President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services told us that he thought some significant progress had been made in the 1980s.
17.In 2014, the Department introduced the Innovation Programme to help local authorities try new approaches and learn from best practice. By June 2016, the Department had provided funding of £110 million to 53 projects. The Department told us that evaluations of projects funded by the Innovation Programme will start to come out between November 2016 and October 2017. The Department also announced in 2014 that local authorities judged to be Good in eleven areas would become Partners in Practice and that, although its original idea for this scheme was to support the local authorities to get from Good to Outstanding, the partners were also keen to help local authorities that Require Improvement to be Good.
18.We recognised that there was excellent social work being done on the ground. However, the Department agreed there was a problem with some social workers who did not have the competency and capability to do the work required and that there were not enough good people to improve social work practice faster. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services added that it did not think it was a money issue but that the good authorities were simply not able to do the day job in addition to helping lots of other authorities to get better.
19.The Department told us about two new training programmes to recruit new social workers and graduate social workers. So far, the Department estimated that about 770 people had been recruited and told us that external evaluations of both programmes had been positive. The Department has also developed new knowledge and skills statements for all levels of social worker and plans to assess and accredit each social worker against these statements by 2020. The statements set out what a social worker needs to be able to do, if they are to do their job properly. The Department told us that it had completed the proof of concept for the assessment and accreditation scheme and had tested it out on 1,000 of all 30,000 social workers by summer 2016. The Department expected ministers to approve the scheme before the end of 2016.
20.The Department wants local authorities to have the best possible practice leaders in place to run the day-to-day operations of children’s social care. However, the Department estimates that about a third of these leaders need further help and support, while some might not be able to do the job at all. The Department told us that it was soon to launch a practice leader programme, which would be run by what is known as the Triborough in London. The Triborough comprises three local authorities: the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster City Council.
21.The Department told us that it was hard to recruit social workers at all levels, as they think they will be blamed when things go wrong. We were concerned that there were too many social workers from agencies working in children’s services. The Department acknowledged that having high numbers of agency staff who move around a lot could create instability for children and their families and be costly. The Department considered that a small number of agency staff was not necessarily a problem but when the rate of agency staff rose to 20% or more, it could become a major problem and if it was 40% or more then there was something seriously wrong. However, the Department also acknowledged that when authorities get a poor Ofsted judgment and lose many permanent staff, they may be very reliant on agency staff and need to have them, otherwise the “whole system would implode”. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services added that the problem was not necessarily the rate of agency staff but rather the turnover of both agency and permanent staff. What was important was that people were committed and wanted to stay at a local authority.
10 ; , para 24
11 ; , para 2.3
12 ; Ofsted
13 ; Ofsted
14 ; Public Accounts Committee, , HC 809, Q 125, 12 January 2015
15 ; para 2.10
16 ; para 2.30
17 ; para 3.19
18 ; para 3.19
15 December 2016