We have reported several times in recent years on the poor state of children’s social care, and in 2016 concluded that the Department for Education was worryingly complacent that nothing could be done to improve services more quickly.
While the Department considers children’s social care to be its most important responsibility and seeks to increase its knowledge about demand pressures, it still has not done enough to make the quality or finances of children’s social care sustainable.
We are disappointed that it has not set out the sustainable improvement it seeks to achieve for children.
For the avoidance of doubt, we expect the Department to improve both the quality and the cost-effectiveness of children's social care in measurable ways by its goal of 2022.
This will require a step-change in the Department's understanding of pressures, the reduction of unnecessary variation between areas in their social care activities and the costs of providing them, and greater pace in its work with struggling local authorities.
The sector is not financially sustainable: 91% of local authorities exceeded their budgets for spending on children's services in 2017-18. It is imperative that the Department get to grips with its understanding of demand pressures if it is to make a compelling case for adequate resources in the anticipated spending review.
The disconnect between the Department for Education making policy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government allocating funding can only be a hindrance to improving services and needs resolving.
As a Committee, we see all too often that decisions in one area of Government can increase spending elsewhere or in the future.
High quality, effective, early support for children is not only vital for them and their families, but beneficial for the taxpayer as well.
“Government’s progress with reforming children’s services has been painfully slow and it has still not made clear what sustainable improvements it hopes to achieve. Children, many of them in desperate circumstances, deserve better.
“The Department for Education regards children’s social care as its most important responsibility. If it is to live up to that responsibility, it must first address what are persistent shortcomings in its understanding of the sector.
“The Department still cannot explain the significant variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care, nor does it have an adequate understanding of demand pressures.
“It will need to rapidly acquire that understanding if it is to make a convincing case for funding to the Treasury. But beyond that, it must show leadership in Government.
“Woolly ambitions are not enough to deliver lasting change. The Department must drive cross-departmental work that will enable the Government to properly meet the needs of vulnerable children.”
Conclusions and recommendations
The Department cannot explain why there is so much variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care. As we have reported previously, there is significant variation between different local authorities in both the activity and cost of their children’s social care. The rate of children in need episodes during 2017-18 ranged from 301 to 1,323 per 10,000 children between local authorities. The amount spent by local authorities per child in need episode ranged between £566 to £5,166, similar to when we looked at this in 2016. Deprivation only explains 15% of the variation and the characteristics of the local authority and its area are the biggest explanatory factor for the variation in activity. The Department acknowledges that it does not yet fully understand variation between local authorities, and that gaining this understanding has not previously been a priority for it. The Department has now commissioned research to understand both pressures on and variations between local authorities. The Department says that local authorities it considers stronger are bringing fewer children into the care system. The Department has not set out the level of variation between local authorities that it considers to be acceptable.
Recommendation: The Department should set out by December 2019:
- data on the costs and quality of children’s social care for each local authority in England, which is easily accessible publicly and enables comparison between authorities;
- the key factors contributing to the variation across local authorities;
- the action it is taking to reduce variation; and
- its future targets for limiting the levels of variation between local authorities in cost and quality of children’s social care.
Recommendation: The Department should also set out by December 2019 the thresholds it deems acceptable for (i) rate of children in need episodes, and (ii) amount spent per child in need episode.
The Department does not possess a comprehensive assessment of the sustainability or resource needs of children’s social care services. The sector is becoming increasingly unsustainable financially, with 91% of local authorities exceeding their budgets for spending on children's services in 2017-18 and an overall overspend of £872 million in 2017-18. Unless the Department gets to grips with its understanding of demand pressures it will struggle to make a compelling case for adequate resources in the anticipated spending review. To understand the resources required the Department has commissioned research to understand both pressures on and variations between local authorities. At present, there is no link between spending and quality of services, as assessed by Ofsted. Indeed, Ofsted unlike the Care Quality Commission for hospitals, does not consider the cost-effectiveness of local authority provision. In addition, while local authorities share good practice through programmes established by the Department, it is not yet apparent whether this is effectively spreading high-quality and well-evidenced children's social care practice.
Recommendation: By September 2019, the Department should decide how it will assess and monitor the cost effectiveness of children’s social care in inspected local authorities. Based on what it decides, the Department should commit to regular reporting on cost effectiveness, incorporating ratings on how well authorities use resources.
Recommendation: By September 2019, the Department should also set out what action it has taken to encourage the take-up of good practice in children’s social care across local authorities and how it will assess take-up. This should include progress updates on the work of its What Works Centre for children’s social care and its Partners in Practice Programme. It should include specific examples of how this work has benefited vulnerable families and children.
The increasing use, and high cost, of residential care places local authorities under extreme financial pressure. There is a lack of residential capacity for children's social care and its use is often unplanned, leading to 'bidding wars' between local authorities for places for children. Although the number of children placed in residential care by local authorities increased by 9.2% between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the cost of residential care increased by 22.5% over the same period, from £1.02 billion to £1.25 billion in real terms. The Department is working with local authorities to commission cost-effective residential care but demand is clearly outstripping supply.
Recommendation: The Department should set out by December 2019 how it will work with local authorities to manage the supply of high quality and cost-effective residential care and match this to demand.
There is a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of early interventions in children’s social care. There is a strongly-held belief in the value of early intervention in addressing the needs of vulnerable children, and preventing these children from becoming even more at risk of harm. Despite this, the Department and local authorities are still only at the beginning of understanding what families need and the evidence of how best to meet that need. Those early intervention services which have been commissioned by local authorities in recent years have supported families with relatively fewer problems but have not been effective for high-risk children and families. A number of local authorities have done work on the pre-proceedings process with parents, however there is significant variation between authorities. Local authorities which have closed children's centres have not seen any consequential increases in child protection plans. The Department has now launched a What Works Centre, which is designed to be a national institution holding intelligence about all good practice in children's social care, including early intervention.
Recommendation: To reduce variation across local authorities in pre-proceedings support, we concur with the recommendation of The Family Rights Group in their 2018 Care Crisis Review that the Department should set up a working group - with representation from legal and social work practitioners and families - to improve and standardise existing pre-proceedings guidance.
Recommendation: The Department should set out by September 2019 how the What Works Centre will identify cost-effective early interventions and how it will spread this knowledge through its programme of good practice.
The Department has not set out what overall improvement it is seeking in children’s social care by 2022. In 2016, the Department committed to deliver a programme of reform in children's social care by 2020. The delivery date for this programme, however, subsequently slipped to 2022. The Department has also made slow progress in improving the quality of children's social care: While there is some recent evidence of improvement, 58% of local authorities are still assessed as below Good by Ofsted, a state of affairs the Department acknowledges is “terrible”. The Department was not able to set out for the Committee either the overall level of quality it is seeking to achieve in children’s social care, or how it will measure this.
Recommendation: The Department should write to us setting out the quality of children’s social care it is seeking to achieve by 2022 and how it will measure this. It should specify a percentage target for how many authorities it is aiming to be rated as “good” or “Outstanding” by 2022. It should do this in a fuller letter accompanying the Treasury Minute response to our report.
There is little evidence of strong cross-government collaboration in improving children’s social care. While there is evidence of cross-Departmental co-operation ahead of the spending review, the Department has sole policy responsibility for children's social care. The complex needs of vulnerable children mean that, in a local setting, they often require services provided by a number of agencies, including local authorities, courts, the police, the Department for Work & Pensions and the health service. There is a particular problem in how local authorities and courts work together when both have different interpretations of risk. Ofsted also focuses primarily on safety but not on risk management or value for money. Senior officials across government have recently met to address the risk of cost-shunting in the expected spending review.
Recommendation: The Department should develop and lead on a cross-government strategy for raising quality in children’s social care, with a cross-government approach agreed by December 2019.
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