Two key documents that will profoundly affect the regulation of social services during the next few years were published this week – Ofsted’s first and highly critical annual report on the state of children’s social care, and the CQC’s plans for changes to the way it regulates and inspects adult social care services. CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy looks at both the Ofsted annual report and the way the main regulators’ approaches are diverging:
Two key documents that will profoundly affect the regulation of social services during the next few years were published this week. One is largely retrospective in nature – Ofsted’s first and highly critical annual report on the state of children’s social care. The other is largely prospective – the CQC’s plans for changes to the way they regulate and inspect adult social care services.
In this blog I’m going to focus mainly on Ofsted’s report, which – along with its accompanying publicity material – delivers a devastating set of judgements on how children’s social services are performing.
Meanwhile, the CQC document marks a further stage of consultation on planned changes to the way the regulatory regime will operate in the future. These come as part of a wholesale re-organisation of the CQC, responding to criticism of its previous overall performance.
However, there’s one overall point I want to pick up from the outset, which is that current developments arguably show two regimes moving in opposite directions on one key issue.
The Ofsted report has a considerable focus on local authority performance and their key rating scales apply to those organisations. But according to earlier ministerial announcements (which I couldn’t immediately see referenced in the new CQC material), the new regulatory regime for adults will not feature similar ratings scales for local authority social care.
I don’t know what the wider reasoning for the changing approaches of the two regulators is, or what the longer term implications will be. But taken at face value it implies a situation in adult care where the regulatory focus will largely be on providers. And, a children’s care focus, that will be on both providers and commissioners.
At a crude level it will also mean that many children’s social workers will be working in councils deemed inadequate by the national regulator; whereas their adults’ services colleagues will be spared that ignominy. Or am I missing something?
And, if I’ve properly understood the two intended approaches, do they perhaps also suggest a different level of government interest in the two service areas, with a belief that child care merits a national overview of local authority performance, while adult social care does not?
Turning, now to the Ofsted report, most of the media attention has focused on a speech given by the Chief Inspector and published alongside the main report. That’s not a mechanism I’ve seen much used by the Inspectorates in the past.
But it’s an important one because I have to say that although the speech accurately reflects the facts and figures in the report, I think its tone considerably heightens the critical tension. And, in that sense, it comes across as an intensely personal speech, setting out the Chief Inspector’s independent-of- government voice, and expressing his own views about what is wrong with children’s social care.
There’s a slight surprise in that, given Ofsted’s new Director of Social Care, Debbie Jones, is only recently in post, but the strength of view expressed should leave no one in any doubt about what the Chief Inspector himself thinks.
There has been widespread media coverage of the key messages the Chief Inspector delivered. I just want to pick up on a few.
He noted that 20 authorities are seen to be inadequate in performing their child protection duties. However, he also drew specific attention to the fact that 86 others had been assessed as performing only at an adequate level.
He went on to confirm that in future such authorities will be described as ‘requiring improvement’. This is linked to arguments that, in relation to child protection, only ‘good’ performance can be seen as wholly adequate.
So taking the current ‘inadequate’ and what will be ‘requiring improvement’ categories together, more than two thirds of all English authorities would be seen to be below the required standard in child protection services.
Another key theme in the Chief Inspector’s speech is the absolute need for a really robust inspection regime, which I think is an oblique response to criticism that the new one is tougher than that employed when the focus was on safeguarding. I have had an initial look at the tables in the report, which are meant to address this issue, but I have to say I couldn’t immediately see what they are meant to be telling us.
My own personal experience of seeing a huge volume of these reports during the past few years leaves me convinced that the new regime is delivering a harsher verdict than those of the past.
There is a range of material in the speech that takes a helpfully wider view of the complex and demanding set of issues that influence child protection performance, including the impact of financial and demographic pressures, and the short-life career span of many children’s social workers.
The main report does contain tables that show the increases in referrals and looked after children numbers that have occurred during the last few years. But I couldn’t immediately see tables that compared that pattern with changes in the workforce during the same period.
In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the speech is the way it singles out Birmingham for specific critical comment. Most commentators have read this as straightforward condemnation of the authority – and a possible plea for it to be broken up.
But I think if you look more closely at the facts set out about the authority, and indeed about the wider social circumstances of children in England included in the speech, there is much for the Government to consider.
Birmingham Council can hardly tackle these issues alone:
• The fact that 12 of the 20 neighbourhoods that have declined most dramatically in the whole of England over the past 10 years re in Birmingham
• Or that nearly a third of children in the city live in households on low incomes
• Or that infant mortality is almost twice the national average, worse than in Cuba and on a par with Latvia and Chile
• Or that levels of long-term unemployment in the city are more than double the national average
And nationally local authorities alone cannot be responsible for or solve the issues that result in:
• 700,000 children living with a parent or carer who is dependent on alcohol
• 100,000 children with parents receiving treatment for hard drug addiction
• 130,000 children living in domestically violent homes
• 17,000 children living with a parent who has a severe or enduring mental illness.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that, as one of my colleagues has already commented, these figures show once again the reality that never seems to grab public attention when child protection practice is under scrutiny. How do you spot the one child among the many, many who live in circumstances of recognised risk who will be severely harmed or killed by their par