Are our children safe with Children’s Services?

The great majority of those who work in local authority children’s services do the very best they can in very difficult conditions.  They suffer abuse from the parents with whom they deal and the media, poor management, criticism from Ofsted and, from their perspective, inadequate resources.  What’s more, neither they nor anyone else know how well they are performing. In 2003, the Laming Report made a huge number of recommendations.  The body of their report made it clear that there was too much process (bureaucracy) and too little time with the problem families.  Performance was assessed by activity (paperwork) and not by outcomes; the body of the report called for that to be reversed.  But outcomes did not feature in the actual recommendations which, ironically, focused on increasing the bureaucracy and made matters worse.

In the eleven years since, government has recognised that performance should be measured by outcomes and some limited progress has been made, e.g. for adoption services.  But where child protection is concerned, we simply get lip service.  No outcome measures have been suggested, nor the specific metrics, nor how they should be gathered.  In short we have no idea what “success” in child protection would look like or which local authorities are doing better than others.

When, last month, I asked the Children’s Department Minister, Edward Timpson MP, about performance measurement in this area, the answer was that they had turned the whole matter over to Ofsted.  The rest of his letter discussed the bureaucracy involved but there was not a word about how performance should be assessed.

This is, of course, a cop out: Ofsted should measure performance against standards set by government, as it does for schools.  Government is responsible for specifying what it wants in return for our money.  How else can they know whether to spend more or less?

Both Ofted’s “Framework and evaluation schedule” (published this June) and Rotherham inspection (published last week) have many references to the importance of measuring outcomes but nothing about what outcomes should be desired, what the metrics should be nor how they could or should be collected.  One has to feel some sympathy for the Rotherham local authority for being chastised for failing to do something that no-one has explained, not even the Department responsible.

Our children may or may not be safe with Children’s Services.  The bigger question is whether they are safe with this government.