Ofsted’s consultation response
Last month Ofsted submitted its response to the government’s consultation Stable Homes, Built on Love. I am sure many of you did the same.
There’s a lot in the proposals that we welcome. With additional resources and a sharp focus on existing and emerging best practice, I am sure we can all achieve our ambitions for children and families. But there are also areas that could be strengthened. Some of the proposals will develop as the Department for Education (DfE) continues to work closely with the sector and care experienced children and adults. And of course, change in the child protection and care system needs to be well resourced, managed with great care and built on what works.
It’s important that the whole of government actively supports these reforms. Child protection is everybody’s concern, and children in care and care leavers should be everybody’s concern too. The full force of cross-government child and family-centred policy making could do a great deal to improve the life opportunities of all.
We have published our full submission to the Stable Homes, Built on Love consultation to accompany this blog. (We’ve also published our submissions to the national framework and dashboard consultation, and the child and family social worker workforce consultation.)
An improving sector
We fully support the focus on families – for most children, the family is likely to be the place that they are able to flourish the most. In the highest performing local authorities, practice already mirrors the reforms. We see sensitive and skilled social work practice with families set alongside a passionate, child-centred approach that can also act with authority and decisiveness when the family is not the right place. Even in local authorities that are performing less well, there are social workers who use their skills and expertise every day to make good decisions for children.
There are multiple challenges facing the sector, including:
- ongoing post-pandemic challenges
- cost-of-living pressures
- rising numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children
- recruitment and retention challenges that exist across all sectors
Despite this, we see plenty of good practice. Over the past 5 years, we have seen the number of local authorities graded inadequate more than halve, from 22% to 9%, and the proportion judged good or outstanding rise from 36% to 60%.
Family help – capacity and oversight
There are definite benefits in a system that merges targeted early help and child in need work into one family help service. The task for LAs is to make sure that changes in practice support making the right decisions for children. Strong oversight of both practice and dynamic risk will be crucial.
The system could become overwhelmed if more children and families are drawn into the statutory system. A stretched workforce and limited capacity could make it harder to spot new or escalating risks. It’s important that LAs have strong oversight so that they can guard against professionals being too ‘adult focused.’ We must not lose sight of the Children Act principle of the paramountcy of a child’s welfare.
Some of the most skilled and complex work to help families and protect children is with children in need. The distinction between families who need help and those in which there is significant risk to children is not easily drawn. Families’ needs and risks to children are dynamic and can change very quickly. Where parents have a wide range of complex needs, or where parents are struggling to recognise and meet their children’s needs, professionals can get drawn in to complex family dynamics.
Many children in need have multiple needs, as do their parents. Balancing supportive approaches while keeping a focus on risks is not easy. The difference between family support and child protection is often about the degree of risk, not the nature of the support or approach required. Child protection and family support both need to be supportive as well as authoritative.
Looking for solutions in family networks and working with strengths is absolutely the right thing to do; without delay in action when needed. Getting the right support early on to children in their families is the right thing to do. But this will need commitment from all partners and local agencies - local authorities cannot do this alone.
We want to see social work skills valued. Lead professionals who are not qualified social workers are likely to need more support and oversight to identify risk. Some local authorities manage this well. But some poorly performing local authorities do not have enough social work oversight and do not emphasise support. This can lead to a more adult-focused approach that misses the needs of and risks to the child.
Tenacious child protection work needs to take place at all stages of a child’s journey. The safeguarding of looked after children also requires finely tuned practitioner skills, as does their return safely to their birth or wider family. Professionals need to listen to the voices of children and their families while making decisions about help, protection and care.
As the DfE strategy sets out, these reforms are occurring at the same time as major changes to the SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities) and alternative provision system. A very high proportion of children with social care involvement have SEND, so these need to complement each other. The current system can be fragmented and there are challenges nationally as well as locally in delivering what children need.
Disabled children need support to remain living with their families wherever possible. Where it is not, there need to be more options for children to live closer to their families.
Embedding reforms across all local authorities
We know that in worse performing local authorities, the starting point is often compliance with basic processes and procedures such as regular visiting and reviewing. These checks and balances are most important when partnership working is not strong and local authority performance is poor. As the DfE gets ready to test the reforms, it will need to take account of how weaker authorities make improvements. Fortunately, the successful journeys many local authorities have been on are powerful case studies about the ingredients for great practice to thrive.
It’s important to get the balance right between local services that keep children close to home and economies of scale at a regional and national level. Sufficiency issues are a daily source of concern in local authorities around the country and here in Ofsted. Despite the ever-growing numbers of children’s homes, we still do not have the right homes offering the right care for children. It is not just about available places - it is about the right homes in the right place that are properly regulated. Ofsted lacks the regulatory powers to tackle the saturation of homes that exists in some places.
The regulatory system
We welcome the intended review of the regulatory system. We have long said that the Care Standards Act is out of date.
Too many children are seen as not meeting thresholds for specialist mental health provision. They then remain in inappropriate placements (including unregistered children’s homes) and are often deprived of their liberty. The government promised us additional powers to tackle unregistered children’s homes, but these are yet to materialise. Solutions for these children will require a cross-government response. For example, the rising numbers of children with high level mental health needs mean that health, social care and justice placements need to be planned jointly and to better meet children’s needs close to home.
We support the planned reforms to strengthen the children’s social work workforce. But children’s social care services are not delivered only by social workers. It is right to make social work practitioners a key focus, but the wider social care and children’s workforce also needs to be included.
Government should actively and publicly value the critical roles of children’s social workers.
We will continue to offer our best advice to government as the reforms develop. Our inspections of local authority children’s services (ILACS) will support the culture shift, iterating carefully and informed by engagement with the sector, as the reforms move forward.
We have been asked to look thematically at the work of regional adoption agencies in the autumn. We hope this can inform the thinking about regional care cooperatives.
Our social care common inspection framework (SCCIF) inspections will continue to focus on children’s progress and experiences. We’ll recognise starting points and the careful work of staff with children on a daily basis, managing risk and complexity sensitively and with care.
We will regulate and inspect proportionately and with great care in a time of change. Our inspections will continue to focus on the experiences of and progress for children. We expect the reforms, if resourced and implemented well, to improve both. We will keep children and families front and centre and continue to support those of you doing the hardest work and making the most difference for children and families.