Education & Family

Protection for at-risk children 'unsatisfactory'

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Government attempts to improve protection for at-risk children in England have been criticised by the National Audit Office.

The spending watchdog says help for at-risk children is "unsatisfactory and inconsistent".

It urges the Department for Education (DfE) to "show a sense of urgency and determination" in delivering change by a promised target date of 2020.

The DfE says children's safety is an "absolute priority" for government.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report assessed the government's progress in improving child help and protection, after the DfE concluded in 2010 that children's services were not good enough.

It concluded progress was poor, with only 23% of local authorities judged by watchdog Ofsted to be good for protection services.

The NAO found spending on children's social work, including on child protection, varied widely across England.

But it could establish no correlation between a local authority's rating by Ofsted, the number of children in need and how much was spent per child in need.

The report also found arrangements for developing, identifying and sharing good practice were "piecemeal" and little information was available on outcomes for children who are, or have been, in need of services.

It said high social worker caseloads, vacancies and use of agency workers played a part in the quality of services.

The NAO said the DfE must set out how it would transform children's services, as promised, by 2020.

"To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020 the department will need to step forward and show a sense of urgency and determination in delivering on their responsibilities," the report concluded.

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An increasing number of children in England need the protection of local authorities.

Referrals to children's social care have increased by 15% over the past 10 years from 552,000 in 2004-05 to 635,600 in 2014-15.

'Extremely disappointing'

Head of the NAO Sir Amyas Morse said: "Six years have passed since the department recognised that children's services were not good enough.

"It is extremely disappointing that, after all its efforts, far too many children's services are still not good enough."

A DfE spokeswoman said: "Keeping children safe from harm is an absolute priority for this government.

"We are taking tough action to drive up standards in children's services across the country, stepping in when councils aren't doing well enough and linking them up with better performing local authorities to share best practice."

Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board said: "In 2008, 78% of children's services were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.

"It is notable that this figure has now dropped below 25%, over a period in which child protection reform and improvement has been largely removed from local government and increasingly centralised within Whitehall instead.

"It's vital to examine how DfE initiatives imposed on local authorities, such as children's services trusts, are evaluated to check whether they are doing a better job of looking after vulnerable children, and use that evidence to develop future initiatives in partnership with councils."

Commenting on the report, Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "Children in need depend on child protection services to get it right for them where other adults in their lives have failed.

"It is horrifying that over three-quarters of local authorities' child protection services are inadequate or require improvement to be good.

"The DfE needs to take radical action to meet their aim for all vulnerable children to receive high quality care by 2020."

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