New NAO report
Professor of Social Work Paul Bywaters comments on the latest report published by the National Audit Office, entitled Pressures on children’s social care.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has just published its latest report on Pressures on children’s social care and called for greater equality in services to children and families. Some of its findings are to be welcomed, but overall the conclusions are presented without detailed evidence of the methods used and fail to take account the complexity of the issues. The danger is that the report feeds Treasury denial that the hostile environment for poor families from austerity, harsh welfare reforms, service cuts and failing housing policy are factors driving demand.
Two key points are important. First, the NAO again argues that reducing variations in children’s chances of being in need, on a child protection plan or looked after should be a national policy objective. It says the Department of Education should take lead responsibility in understanding demand pressures, commissioning research into variations between local authorities and working with the sector to reduce unnecessary variation between authorities in levels of looked-after children. Second, they confirm that children’s services have faced huge financial pressures as a result of austerity policies and rising demand since 2010. While local authorities have protected children’s services to some extent, they have done so largely by reducing spend on prevention from 41% of total spend to just 25% over this period, while taking more children into care.
In its more detailed analysis, the report makes several claims: that local authorities are responsible for almost half of all variations between local authorities in child protection plan rates, with only 15% the result of deprivation; that local authorities which have closed children’s centres have not had any consequential increases in child protection plans and that there is no correlation between the cost per child in need and the Ofsted rating for the local authority for 2017-18. But all of these claims are highly questionable. The methodology is not transparent, but seems not to include any measure either of family socio-economic circumstances or of different patterns of ethnicity in the child population, which our research in the Child Welfare Inequalities Project found to be the key variables affecting inequalities in children’s services. The report has not recognised the interaction of deprivation and funding in influencing Ofsted judgements and similarly fails to see that local councils, which are forced to shut children’s centres, will also be forced to ration the proportion of children placed on protection plans.
We do need more research on children’s social care, but repeating these dubious claims about local authorities, Ofsted and Sure Start, without adequate evidence, does families and children no good at all.