BLOG: Scrutiny of children’s services
Earlier this year, we published guidance to support councils to engage with Ofsted inspections of local authority children’s services under the “inspecting local authority children’s services” (ILACS) framework. This blog summarises that advice (framing some of it slightly differently, to ensure that both a comprehensive and concise picture can be provided), and provides some further insights for councils and councillors grappling with this issue.
As with other kinds of external assessment and review, scrutiny can undertake action that is both reactive and proactive.
Reactive work is fairly straightforward to introduce. The inspection of children’s services is high profile, and adverse findings can produce significant local controversy. Scrutiny will want to understand the circumstances behind this and to be – at the very least – sighted on improvement plans.
Even where Ofsted finds that a council is performing well, there will be action to take to sustain good performance – again, scrutiny will want to be assured of service quality.
Proactive work is perhaps a bit more difficult to grip. Councillors have particular duties in respect of children’s services – they all have formal responsibility as “corporate parents”, and this duty should inform how scrutiny is carried out.
It suggests a form of scrutiny for children’s services that is about enabling the voice of children and young people to be heard, as well as ensuring that services are safe, compliant and high quality. Indeed, it is likely that ILACS will have regard to the strength of “proactive” scrutiny of children’s services in making its assessment of performance. Strong oversight and accountability is a good way of ensuring that services stay high quality.
This blog will look at reactive and proactive forms of scrutiny in turn.
During Ofsted’s visit, there is likely to be no contact with inspectors. Afterwards, depending on the outcome, scrutiny will want to ask questions – including questions about the scrutiny function itself.
These might include:
- Were we expecting the outcome? If not, why not? These questions are particularly self-searching, especially if asked following adverse findings.
- If the outcome was adverse, was scrutiny asking the right questions as part of its ongoing scrutiny of children’s services?
- If the outcome was adverse, how can scrutiny support the council’s improvement journey?
- If the outcome was adverse to the extent that DfE have decide to send in a Commissioner, what should scrutiny’s role be to support and review the work of that person?
- If the outcome was positive, what can we do to sustain good performance, and in doing so avoid complacency?
There are three key tasks that scrutiny can perform proactively, in order to support the council to be in the best possible shape. This is both to ensure a positive ILACS outcome, and more generally to ensure that children and young people are being protected and supported.
- to have regard to risks identified at both local and national level;
- to ensure that it has assurance that the performance systems around children’s services are being managed and operated effectively;
- to learn from, and base scrutiny work on, the annual self-evaluation which Ofsted requires that councils carry out;
- to learn from and understand the direct experience of young people themselves.
Risk management is critical to any service – particularly one with importance to life and limb, like children’s services. There are two components to the way that risk is considered:
- Operationally – how do social workers (and others with responsibility for keeping children safe) use risk to inform the individual interventions they make in young people’s lives, and in the support packages put in place for them? This is uniquely complex – a space where assessment of risk is based on informed professional judgements. Scrutiny here will not be trying to look behind individual case management decisions, but it may want to assure itself of the support framework in place to inform those decisions, and the management systems that ensure that decision-making is robust, timely and proportionate;
- Systemically – how is risk, overall, understood in the service? Where do particular pressures lie, and how are those pressures understood? How are risks and pressures being mitigated? Some councils have large numbers of people with significant housing need, living in unsuitable accommodation, where that accommodation is having significant effects on children’s welfare. Some councils may have a high number of unaccompanied asylum seeker children requiring care and support. These demographic issues – and others – will impact on the council’s exposure to risk, and the way it manages those risks and pressures. Scrutiny will need to understand how this presents itself;
Councils will have systems in place to monitor the performance of children’s services.
Questions you may wish to ask:
- Are these systems measuring the right things in the right way?
- Are those systems used to flag up early warning signs of problems ahead?
- Does the performance management framework align with the ILACS framework?
- Culturally speaking, is performance management seen as a tick box exercise or as a key mechanism to assure service quality?
The annual self-evaluation
Scrutiny can feed into this self-evaluation, and can also draw evidence from it. The self-assessment exercise poses three questions:
- What do you know about the quality and impact of social work practice with families in your authority?
- How do you know it?
- What plans do you have over the next 12 months to maintain or improve practice?
Scrutiny can pose these questions itself and challenge the answers given, strengthening this part of the exercise in the process.
Learning from the experiences of young people
Arguably the greatest way for scrutiny to make an impact is to speak directly to young people – to understand their experiences and their hopes, and to use those insights to recommend improvements to services.
There will be difficulties for scrutiny in having these conversations. Formal committees are held in public, and they can be unfamiliar and intimidating spaces.
As with public participation more generally, it is best to go where people already are – this may be about pursuing conversations in schools, or working with officers in the department to understand other ways in which evidence can be gathered directly. The law (and safeguarding policy generally) will require that the council puts arrangements in place to ensure the young people are able to engage in scrutiny’s work safely, but there is no reason why, with these protections, productive conversations cannot happen.
Young people’s experiences can be valuable in a number of ways. They have unique insight in what it feels like to go through “the system” – children in care will be experts in the effectiveness and the humanity of the council’s ways of working, bringing personality and life to systems which otherwise might seem technocratic. In a more general sense, children will be able to assert their needs and pass judgements about how well the council is meeting those needs.
You can read more about the ILACS framework itself at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inspecting-local-authority-childrens-services-from-2018/inspecting-local-authority-childrens-services
… and you can download our guide at https://www.cfgs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/J4074-CfGS-Inspecting-local-authority-childrens-services-v.4.pdf