The Department for Education’s efforts to improve children’s services have been branded “complacent” in a damning report published today by the Public Accounts Committee.
The group of MPs claims the department has no credible plans to meet an ambition to improve services by 2020, and that variability in the quality and consistency of help and protection services is “leaving children at risk of harm”.
Among the report’s wide-ranging criticisms it said local practice varied widely, and found little relationship between the quality of services and investment.
It urged the department to set out minimum standards to local authorities to ensure best practice was consistent across the country.
It described the department’s ambition to ensure all vulnerable children receive the same high quality care and support by 2020, set out in a July 2016 report called Putting Children First, as “frustratingly vague”. It requested the DfE publish plans annually that lay out how it will work with authorities to transform services.
The report complained about the DfE’s reliance on Ofsted inspections to measure the quality of local authority services, pointing out that a target to inspect all 152 local authorities’ children’s services by November 2016 had been missed and would not be achieved until the end of 2017.
It said the department should use other data available to it, such as workforce information or re-referral rates, to speed up its intervention regime.
While the report recognised the DfE had taken some steps to improve children’s services, such as introducing an Innovation Programme that helped authorities trial new approaches worth £110 million between 2014 and 2016, and new training programmes aimed at recruiting new social workers, it needed to do more.
Chair of the PAC Meg Hillier MP said the DfE had a responsibility to set standards for training, recruitment and development.
“I do believe local government should play its role, but when you’ve got 800,000 of the most vulnerable children, you’ve got to have a clear approach,” she said.
“Ofsted has a role to check what’s happening. But the government has other information that it could use to work out what’s happening before Ofsted goes in to find a bigger problem.”
She said although local authorities had suffered funding reductions, the answer to the problems found by the PAC was not necessarily greater investment.
“It’s very unclear exactly the relationships of costs and outcomes,” she said. “For example, if you’ve got lots of temporary staff that can cost more in the short run.”
Vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Alison Michalska agreed with the committee that central government could do more to help local authorities deliver children’s services.
She said authorities were using innovative and collaborative work approaches to meet children’s needs during a time of scarce resources.
But the report said in the six years since the government had commissioned Professor Eileen Munro to review the child protection system in 2010, the department still had “no evidence on what works”.
Chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board Richard Watts (Lab) said more funding was needed to meet rising demands on children’s services.
He also called upon Ofsted to play a more active role in supporting improvement, “including an inspection framework that recognises something as complex as children’s services cannot be reduced to a one-word rating”.
“Research commissioned by the LGA last year found that an ‘inadequate’ rating by Ofsted actually created an incredibly difficult environment in which to make improvements, with resignations by both councillors and officers, vilification in the media, and an uphill battle to recruit new social workers thanks to the reputational damage caused,” he added.
A DfE spokeswoman defended the department’s performance, claiming: “We have a relentless focus on keeping children safe, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.”
“This year we published plans to deliver excellent children’s social care across the country, and through new legislation are further strengthening protection for the most vulnerable children and transforming the support available to them,” she continued
“We take tough action where councils are failing children, stepping in to make sure improvement plans are taken forward as a matter of urgency,” she added.
The DfE is due to report back to the committee on the report’s recommendations in March 2017.