Ofsted warning about child services
Many local councils are struggling to offer a good standard of care and protection for their most vulnerable youngsters, inspectors have warned.
Children's social services are still under "intense pressure" amid increasing numbers of young people in need of help, stretched budgets and intense public scrutiny, according to Ofsted.
In its second annual social care report, the watchdog said more than half of the authorities inspected for their children's social care in 2013/14 are not yet up to scratch.
Seven of 43 councils visited were rated as inadequate, with a further 26 judged to require improvement.
A total of ten were found to provide a good standard of care and protection for children and young people, Ofsted said.
In a commentary on the report, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said: "Children's social care sector remains under intense pressure. The increasing demands on the system are stark."
Over the last year, the number of children in need has increased by 5% to 397,600, while the number of young people in care has risen by 1% and is now at its highest level since 1987.
"Stretched budgets are putting additional strain on these crucial services," Sir Michael said.
"Social care professionals are often expected to do more with the same or less, all the while knowing that the actions they take and the decisions they make can dramatically change the course of a child's life.
"Growing public scrutiny and criticism only adds to that pressure. I make no apology for Ofsted carrying out robust inspections of these services on behalf of the children and young people who use them. But we must recognise the context and constraints within which social workers and their managers work. They have a difficult and demanding role and do not always get the support and recognition they deserve."
In the areas found to be performing well, inspectors found "high quality practice" for families and children, the report says.
This includes social workers working directly with families and youngsters at an early stage and clear oversight by managers of staff caseloads, vacancies and high quality training and supervision.
In the 26 areas that required improvement, youngsters were not immediately at risk, but there was a lack of support for social workers and managers were not overseeing practice consistently.
The report adds that the number of inadequate councils is broadly the same as previous years, but there is also an "unsettled" picture with authorities rated as failing changing over time and some declining rapidly.
Sir Michael said: "Today's report shows that although some authorities are working well for vulnerable children and young people, there is still room for significant improvement."
David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said: "Protecting children is one of the most important jobs councils do and this report restates the pressure the system is under.
"Children's services are creaking under the strain as they work to protect the most vulnerable children from abuse, neglect and child sexual exploitation. In an NHS system failing to cope with winter pressures, the Government recently pledged £2 billion to alleviate the crisis.
"We need Whitehall to redress the balance and give us adequate resources we need to get on with the vital job of protecting children.
"High-profile crimes of abuse and neglect have brought sharply into focus the need for vigilance. As a result, there are rightly thousands more children on the radar of social services now. But this is in a climate where councils have faced cuts to their budgets of 40% since 2010.
"Councils know they have a key role to play in looking after children but it is not a job which they can do alone. We need a million eyes and ears looking out for our young people. Far too many times social workers hear of abuse too late, when we need to be intervening earlier."
Lily Caprani, director of strategy and policy at The Children's Society, which helps victims of child abuse and exploitation, said: "It is deeply worrying that more than three-quarters of councils are providing children's social care that is not good enough. If three-quarters of schools were found to be failing, people would say this was a crisis and demand immediate action. Addressing the holes in the system should be a top priority.
"We welcome Ofsted strengthening its focus on child sexual exploitation and on children who go missing. But it is a concern that some services are still not recognising the risks children face and fail to respond appropriately. The Government needs to ensure that local councils and safeguarding boards have the powers and funding to do their job properly."