Since the mid-2000s, most councils have seen a massive increase in referrals to their children’s services and increased numbers of children requiring a child protection plan. Ensuring councils can fulfill their obligations is paramount.
However, even in one of the most effective child protection systems in the world, the picture is not encouraging.
Ofsted’s 2007-08 annual report showed that 69% of councils inspected were considered ‘good’, 22% ‘adequate’ and 9% ‘outstanding’. Not a single authority inspected was considered ‘inadequate’.
Today, 28% of councils are rated as ‘inadequate’, 55% ‘requiring improvement’ and 18% are considered ‘good’. Not a single council has been rated as ‘outstanding’ in the last two and half years, and the most recent authority to receive this grade fell into the inadequate category this year.
Certainly, the performance bar has been raised, but that does not explain how a system can appear to be improving on most key indicators while its single-sentence regulatory judgments are going the other way.
The LGA commissioned Impower to assess the impact of inspection. It found Ofsted’s ‘inadequate’ rating is often a spur driving poorer performance, at a cost of £30m a year to taxpayers.
The ratings’ decline is extremely concerning, as is the time it takes authorities with adverse judgments to turn around performance. One of Ofsted’s key roles is to work with local government to drive swift improvement; we can’t continue to have it hamper our efforts. An inadequate rating creates a vicious circle of problems and a barrier to improvement.
When Ofsted gives a rating of ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’, the fallout is all too similar: senior leaders and officers are removed from their posts and our well-regarded, hard-to-recruit social workers demoralised as they struggle with increased referrals. Something needs to give and it shouldn’t be at the expense of dedicated staff or by pumping taxpayers’ money into private sector consultancies.
At this year’s National Children and Adult Services Conference, the LGA, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Ofsted debated the future of inspection and how a sector-led improvement approach can assist with building better services.
We need our regulator to deliver honest, objective and fearless feedback, and to be part of the solution. The LGA will press to ensure that any new inspection regime includes members and children’s services directors from other local authorities to ensure clarity, and that Ofsted understands the context affecting local government and how we are working together to improve.
David Simmonds (Con), deputy leader of Hillingdon LBC and chairman of the LGA’s improvement and innovation board