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Children must have the same priority as trains and hospitals

Ofsted’s annual report is clear that the overall effectiveness of local authority children’s services up and down the country continues to improve. Currently, 86% of local authorities are judged as outstanding, good or requires improvement to be good and the overall proportion of local authorities judged as inadequate has decreased considerably, from 22% to 12%. Every council that was re-inspected last year has improved too. This is good news for children and their families and it’s important that the hard work and dedication of staff up and down the country is recognised.

ADCS will continue to speak loudly and clearly about the significant pressures facing the vital services we lead and deliver which threaten the good progress made to date. I was pleased to see that the challenges we face from rapidly increasing demands and reducing resources have been acknowledged by both HMCI, Amanda Spielman, and Ofsted’s National Director, Social Care, Yvette Stanley. In a commentary, Spielman notes that: “Tightened budgets have led to an understandable focus of resources on children in need of help and protection…However, a reduced focus on preventative work may in the longer term be more expensive…” ADCS has repeatedly urged the government to recognise the benefits of proper and sustainable funding for children’s services over small, one off pots of funding for some local areas but not others. Some upfront investment would be needed, but it would enable local authorities to invest in both statutory children’s services as well as early help. An approach that will pay off over time in both human and financial terms.

In terms of education, 86% of all schools were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspection, this is unchanged from 2018. All children should have access to a high quality education and a broad curriculum to help them thrive and realise their potential. While most schools are delivering a good standard of education for our children, I am deeply worried about the small number who aren’t. We share the inspectorate’s concerns around off rolling, illegal schools and schools previously judged to be outstanding being exempt from inspection (some for up to ten years by which point a lot can change.) We therefore welcome the government’s commitment to end this exemption.

Beyond this, we are similarly concerned about the sufficiency of children’s homes, the geographical mismatch between the location of homes and need as well as the standard of some secure training centres (STCs) which support some of our most vulnerable children and young people. Many of these issues are out of the control of local authorities and require national attention and solutions. I note with sadness that the most recent inspection of Medway STC resulted in an inadequate judgement.

In some areas services for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are not yet where they should be, and more needs to be done to ensure the health, education and care needs of a growing number of children are appropriately met. Despite record levels of spending in the SEND system there is growing frustration and parental dissatisfaction. We welcomed additional funding for SEND services announced in the last Budget, however, the systemic challenges we face in meeting our statutory duties will not be solved by one-off cash sums. These children deserve our support and local authorities, parents and schools must work together to make the case to government for a SEND system that ensures no child is left behind. ADCS members stand ready to work with government on its recently announced review of this area.

The report contains some good news, particularly in relation to improvement in local authority children’s services, but I echo Stanley’s concerns that it also “raises difficult questions about how far an already stretched sector can bend before it breaks.” The government should not gamble with children’s outcomes and life chances by not funding the vital services they rely on properly; children’s services should not be a blue light service. Next month’s budget is an opportunity for the Treasury to show that children are as much a priority as railways, trade and hospitals.

Rachel Dickinson is Executive Director People at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and ADCS President 2019/20.

This column first appeared on the LGC website on 4 February 2020 | More

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