Care expert calls for end to ‘simplistic assertions’ about children’s services

An expert on children’s social care has called on central government and its agencies to avoid ‘simplistic assertions’ denying links between local authorities’ (LA) deprivation levels, expenditure and the performance of children’s services.

Writing in Community Care on 18 January 2017, Professor Paul Bywaters of Coventry University disputes Ofsted’s conclusion that “inadequacy is not a function of… deprivation or funding” and revealed analyses showing significant relationships between LAs’ level of disadvantage, spending power and how well their children’s services performed.

As a member of WMCU, Coventry University is working alongside Birmingham City University and the University of Wolverhampton to support the West Midlands Combined Authority’s objectives around economic growth and progressive public sector reform.

Professor Bywaters, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, analysed over a hundred Ofsted judgements of LA children’s social care in England between 2013 and 2016 and compared them against expenditure and deprivation levels.

The research, which is part of a wider study into inequalities in UK children’s services – whose findings will be published next month – showed that:

  • 41% of all low deprivation LAs received a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ judgement, compared to 30% for mid deprivation LAs and only 11% for high deprivation LAs;
  • while 21% of low deprivation LAs were judged as ‘inadequate’, that proportion rises to almost a third (29%) in the high deprivation LAs;
  • owing to variation in LA population sizes, well over half (55%) of children living in all low deprivation LAs were in LAs judged to be good or outstanding, compared to only 7% of children in high deprivation LAs;
  • high deprivation LAs that did receive a good or outstanding judgement spent more money than those judged inadequate (a population weighted average of 23% more per child);
  • expenditure did not make an obvious difference in Ofsted outcomes in low deprivation LAs.

The findings also challenge a National Audit Office (NAO) report into children in need last year, which concluded that there is “no relationship between reported spending and Ofsted’s judgement of quality”4.

Professor Bywaters, from the university’s Centre for Technology-Enabled Health Research, said:

“Severe cuts to LAs’ spending are biting as demand for crucial child protection and family support services increases, and yet central government maintains that neither the level of deprivation nor expenditure on services have any influence on the performance of local authorities’ child social care. Our data shows otherwise, and is at odds with recent statements from Ofsted and the National Audit Office.

“It is crucial that the questions raised by our data become central to the debate around child protection and children’s services, particularly with further austerity measures and fundamental changes to local government financing on the horizon.

“Neither low deprivation nor high spend is a guarantee of a good Ofsted outcome, any more than high deprivation or low spend ensures a bad one. But at a time when crucial children’s services are in the balance, we must at least stop making simplistic assertions that deprivation and expenditure make no difference to quality.”