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Ofsted director warns of 'enduring harm' due to early help cuts

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Cutting early help and prevention services due to financial pressures risks leaving children vulnerable to “significant” and “enduring harm”, Ofsted’s national director of social care has said.

Ofsted’s annual report published yesterday said councils have had “the most significant [funding] reductions across the public sector”. While statutory children’s services have been protected, Ofsted said cuts to preventative services are a “false economy” which will lead to greater pressures in the future.

Speaking to LGC, Yvette Stanley said as the number of councils rated inadequate has fallen and 60% have improved performance during a time of significant pressures, it was important the sector “regains and maintains its confidence by having a really strong focus on excellent social work practice and making that happen locally”.

She said: “These building blocks are hard won and easily lost so stability at leadership team level is important, and of frontline, and getting the right practice model and the right structures.”

But Ms Stanley said a tight focus on balancing council budgets at the expense of children’s social care performance can cause a significant deterioration in services.

“In just a very few places… the local authority has tried to focus on balancing the budget so that means staff in social services are at corporate meetings about the budget and taking those difficult decisions, and [then] that forensic grip and oversight you need on children’s services is weakened,” she said.

“We are not judging. The people who were in there working hard to keep children safe in a challenging financial context but doing those things simultaneously has caused children’s services to deteriorate and now they have got that to contend with as well as a very difficult financial context.”

She also said the “difficult decisions” to reduce non-statutory services was yet to make a significant impact on statutory social care but added they were likely to be “storing up problems for the future”.

Ms Stanley said: “If the contraction of early help services means… fewer children are referred and the referrals are later on then absolutely there is a chance that they would have suffered more significant harm, as well as it being much more costly to support them later on.

“There are risks that harm will be enduring and will cause issues with them later in their lives.”

She said Ofsted is encouraging policy makers to “think very carefully” about decisions on balancing social care and prevention services as money cannot be taken out of budgets “safely or easily”.

Enforcement action by the regulator against children’s homes has risen from 14 incidents in 2015-16 to 73 in 2017-18. Ofsted said this is due to a range of reasons including the cancellation of two children’s home chains, updated legal advice on child safety and increased inspector capacity to act following the reduction in interim inspections.

But Ms Stanley said there are concerns over “sufficiency and suitability of the provision map” of children’s homes, particularly for children with complex needs.

Ten of the 14 secure children’s homes are good or outstanding, while all three secure training centres for children who have come through the criminal justice system require improvement. Ofsted has raised concerns over high levels of violence and the safety of children and staff in such settings.

But Ms Stanley said the mix of children in secure homes and the complexity of need is a challenge for providers, with young people who may have been neglected, suffered ‘county lines’ criminal exploitation and/or sexual exploitation.

She said: “These young people have significant needs. Not only do they need great provision and a therapeutic response to their adverse experiences, but the question is where do they go next? What are the step downs? We know there are pressures at key points.

“It may be that those young people need intensive fostering so we have to look at the whole provision map, not just the secure homes. It is about the whole provision map and getting it right for the complexity that we are all seeing out there.”

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