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The DfE's children's social care complacency

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LGC commentary on the National Audit Office report on children’s social care

The government continues to resist the logic that children’s social care services, which have been until now largely protected from cuts, are in desperate need of more resources to prevent the young from coming to harm.

Variations in spend and performance, and the absence of a clear correlation between the two, was used by the government as an excuse not to act decisively, beyond inviting bids for pots of money through the innovation fund that rewarded well-performing councils rather than address growing vulnerabilities in the wider system.

Research by Newton Europe, commissioned by the Local Government Association and published last year, debunked the government’s implied position that it is council inefficiencies causing growing pressures on children’s social care.

A complex formula involving 28 demographic, economic and geographic measures identified five factors which explain the majority of spend variation.

Variation is inevitable, it concluded, and “it is not logical to expect councils to converge on a single right value spend”, while the factors driving demand are predominantly out of the control of councils.

The National Audit Office, whose report on pressures on children’s social care was published yesterday, had its own stab at explaining the variation in performance.

Using levels of child protection plans, the NAO identified “wide-ranging characteristics” of council areas - including children’s social care practice, market conditions and attributes of children and their families - that account for 44% of the variation in levels of child protection plans.

A further 15% can be attributed to deprivation levels, 10% by national policy changes and 6% by levels of spending on children’s social care and the levels of social worker vacancies.

The remaining 25% is not explained by the model.

What is clear is there is more work to be done to understand the variations in spend and performance in order to drive improvement, establish reslience and maintain performance where it is good.

Perhaps, given the scale of the challenge, this should be approached on a regional or sub-regional level.

Unfortunately, an obsession with per unit cost in policy decision-making – which Solace head of policy Piali Das Gupta has pointed out appears to be a “British peculiarly”  – will still be required to persuade the Treasury that services protecting young victims of horrific neglect, abuse and exploitation need urgent investment to reduce the likelihood of tragic failure.

Beyond some disturbing figures in the NAO report, not least the national shame of 25% increase in the number of children on child protection plans since 2010-11, the most striking evidence in the report is of the government’s complacency towards what should be among its most pressing priorities.

Until recently, it says, the Department for Education had not considered understanding the causes of rising demand and activity in children’s social care a central part of its responsibilities.

The NAO describes DfE’s belated attempts at analysis as “analytically limited” and “not comprehensive” with “no prioritisation of factors or quantification of the contribution of each factor”.

So here we are, despite DfE, Ministry for Housing Communities & Local Government and the Treasury commissioning external research in 2017, the government remains largely none the wiser and remains in “hope” of an explanation when the research is published in the summer.

It is fair to say, despite an acknowledgement that DfE is now taking some responsibility and applying a degree of effort in supporting the sector to get to grips with complex challenges, it does not emerge well from the NAO report.

As the NAO points out, DfE is responsible for the legal and policy frameworks within which councils operate. It is accountable to parliament for the quality of children’s social care and the policy approach to protecting children.

DfE also issues statutory guidance on how councils and other agencies, such as police and health services, work together to this end. Not to mention its responsibilities for agreeing Ofsted’s inspection framework and intervening when severe service failings occur.

If DfE had displayed the same lack of attention to the education system, there would be widespread condemnation. It is high time the government’s virtual dereliction of the most vulnerable children received the same treatment.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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