Pressure is ‘no barrier’ to children’s services’ success

The findings from the first children’s services departments to be subjected to a deep-dive full safeguarding inspection have revealed an equal three-way split between councils rated “good”, “adequate” and “inadequate”.

Ofsted’s annual report this week boils down some of the findings to provide lessons for improvement.

However, at a time when most children’s services departments are trying to cope with soaring levels of child protection work against a backdrop of the harshest funding climate for a generation, Ofsted insists that neither factor is a barrier to service improvement.

Social care director John Goldup is adamant that the difference between councils that perform well on child protection and those rated “inadequate” cannot be seen entirely as being related to pressure. Condensing the lessons from the watchdog’s first safeguarding and looked-after children inspections – plus findings from unannounced visits, joint area reviews, serious case reviews and staff surveys – has provided a “unique resource” for improvement, he says.

Mr Goldup is keen to stress that, while the 30 or so councils so far subjected to full inspections divide equally into those that are performing “well”, “adequately” or “inadequately”, this is not necessarily reflective of the national picture.

“Which authorities we inspected this year was heavily influenced by recent assessments – it’s not a representative sample,” says Mr Goldup.

“But the evidence is that the differences between good performers and poor performers are not explicitly in terms of the pressures.

“If it is right that all authorities are facing broadly the same pressures, deprivation isn’t the explanation, size isn’t the explanation, and type of authority isn’t the explanation.”

The answers, according to Mr Goldup, are to develop effective communications between councils and their partners; a shared understanding of the precise thresholds for access to safeguarding services; and a senior management-led focus on improvement.

“There’s a very strong link between the quality of child protection services, the quality of safeguarding services, and the range and management of early intervention services,” he says.

“Those authorities that have effective communication arrangements that ensure a range of preventative services are in place and accessible at the right time, provide the best-quality child protection services.”

With demand for services rocketing, Mr Goldup believes that good communications between partners also greatly helps with demand management.

“We found places where the police are turning every domestic violence incident into a referral and local authorities are at risk of drowning under the volume,” he says.

“There are other areas that have prioritised domestic violence work with the police to put in place a system where referrals are dealt with in a more controlled way that prioritises urgent cases.”

Mr Goldup adds that the existence of preventative services alone did not guarantee good child protection.

“The differences we have found are not so much in terms of volume of the services – it’s much more to do with how well services are operating with universal services,” he says.

“One of the concerns in areas where this is an issue is about families that are falling through the gaps in the system because services don’t join together.”

Focusing on the actual quality of services rather than on indicators is another important area that can drive improvement, Mr Goldup says.

“The over-reliance on a single set of national indicators – whatever the indicator is – seems to have created a climate where there is too much of an emphasis on getting the numbers right.”

He insists there was “no good evidence” to suggest a direct correlation between the length of time an assessment takes and the quality of child protection at a council.

Last month’s spending review hit non-schools Department for Education funding with 12% cuts but, with only a week to go before councils find out their individual settlements, Mr Goldup is reluctant to suggest what councils should be prioritising. Instead, Mr Goldup warns that the financial climate could push councils to prioritise either early intervention or child protection rather than both.

“Given the huge pressure services are under, there is a risk that services could polarise in that kind of way,” he says. “One of the key things we’re saying is that it is a mistake to see it as a choice.”

A system under pressure

Ofsted accepts children’s social services departments are coming under “very considerable pressure” but insists there is no link between demand and the quality of service. It cites “great variations” in the effectiveness with which local authorities and local partnerships manage that pressure.

Based on evidence from a full set of unannounced inspections, 30 safeguarding and looked-after children inspections, joint area reviews, serious case reviews, and staff surveys, it believes there are performance lessons to be learned.

The trends:

*Referrals up 11% between March 2009 and March 2010

* Initial assessments up 12%

* Core assessments up 17%

*Children subject to a child-protection-plan up 4.5%

*33.7% increase in the number of public law cases

* Almost all authorities struggling with difficulties with developing and implementing functioning IT systems.

The staff:

64% of social workers do not believe they have enough time to  work effectively with the children on their workload.

Only 38% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their LA was open to new ideas about ways of working.

Keys to success:

*Effective leadership and management

*Strong partnership working at all levels

*Effective communications to secure an appropriate and accessible range of support services at an early stage

Differences between good and inadequate authorities:

*Good authorities had learned from previous inspections

*Inadequate authorities are generally unable to demonstrate the impact of their systems in focusing attention on areas of poor performance and informing action to improve it

*Nearly all authorities inspected for safeguarding were found to have a range of prevention services, but at inadequate ones the capacity of the voluntary sector was not always fully developed or used.

*Inadequate authorities relied too much on national performance indicators with little consideration to scrutiny of the actual quality of work that underpin them.

*Departments with strong, effective leadership were better able to influence the extent to which thresholds for services were made known, agreed and applied across partnerships, potentially operating acting as an aid to demand management.