Child protection services in "systemic failure"

Child protection is suffering from "systemic failure", with spending disconnected from quality and children in different parts of the country not getting the same access to help, the National Audit Office has warned.

Despite the Department for Education's efforts since 2010 to improve the quality of child protection delivered by local authorities, services remain unsatisfactory and inconsistent, it said. Ofsted has rated almost 80 per cent of services inspected since 2013 below Good.

At the same time, demand is rising. As of March 2015, there were 391,000 under-18s in England assessed as being in need of help or protection. In 2013-14, there were 2.3m initial contacts, up 65 per cent since 2007-08. Over the past decade, there has been a 124 per cent increase in serious cases where a local authority believes a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.

Spending on services varies across the country - and is not linked to the quality of support provided. Average reported spending on social work in 2014-15 ranged from an estimated £340 per child in need in one authority to £4,970 per child in another. Neither the DfE nor local authorities understand why spending varies, the NAO said.

Good performance is not related to levels of deprivation, region, the number of children in need or the amount spent on them, it added.  

Children in different parts of the country do not get the same access to help or protection. The report found that thresholds for access were not always well understood or applied by local partners, such as the police and health services. Ofsted has said some areas' thresholds were set too high or low, leading to inappropriate referrals or children being left at risk. In the year ending 31 March 2015, the NAO found very wide variations between local authorities in the rates of referrals accepted, re-referrals, children in need and repeat child protection plans.

The NAO said the Department for Education's interventions to improve failed local services and "neither risk-based nor early enough". It only takes action when Ofsted has already judged services to have failed local children and has no plans to use performance information to anticipate the risk of failure. Neither the department nor the 23 per cent of local authorities rated as Good by Ofsted have the capacity or capability to intervene effectively on a wider scale.

The report also noted that the DfE has no data on the outcomes for children who have been in need or help or protection, except for educational outcomes. Whitehall and local authorities therefore do not understand which approaches are most effective.

Data for educational outcomes shows a big gap between children in need and their peers. Just 15 per cent of children in need get five or more GCSEs, compared to 54 per cent of all children.

In July, the DfE published its plans to transform all children's services by 2020, setting a goal that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support. The NAO said it faces "significant challenges" in meeting this goal.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "Six years have passed since the department recognised that children's services were not good enough. It is extremely disappointing that, after all its efforts, far too many children's services are still not good enough. 

"To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020, the department will need to inject more energy, pace and determination in delivering on its responsibilities."

Responding to the report, Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA's Children & Young People Board, said: "In 2008, 78 per cent of children's services were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. It is notable that this figure has now dropped below 25 per cent, over a period in which child protection reform and improvement has been largely removed from local government and increasingly centralised within Whitehall instead.

"It's vital to examine how DfE initiatives imposed on local authorities, such as children's services trusts, are evaluated to check whether they are doing a better job of looking after vulnerable children, and use that evidence to develop future initiatives in partnership with councils."

He added that research by the LGA suggests that despite Ofsted existing to drive improvement among providers, the reputational damage inflicted by a bad rating can actually make progress more difficult because it leads to resignations by both councillors and officers, vilification in the media and an "uphill battle" to recruit new social workers.

"We would like to see Ofsted playing a far 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," Cllr Watts said.

"Finally, it should be noted that thanks to reports from all corners of the community and the hard work of social workers, the police and others, the number of children dying due to homicide or assault has fallen by 69 per cent in England since 1985 and remains in long-term decline. We can never be complacent when it comes to the safety of children and young people, but we must take care that in our rush to improve, we don't lose sight of the unreported excellence of social workers across the country, whose tough decisions and swift actions are saving children's lives every day."