Six years of reforms to child protection services have failed to make significant improvements, a damning report from the National Audit Office has said.
The watchdog said that despite actions taken by the Department for Education (DfE) since 2010, many child services delivered by local authorities are still not good enough.
The report argues that the DfE only intervenes when Ofsted has already found services for children are failing, and it does not use performance information to anticipate the risks of failure.
Analysis by the NAO revealed that spending on children's social work varies widely across England and is not related to quality. This can range from £340 per child in need in one authority, to £4,970 per child in need in another. The NAO said neither the DfE or local authorities understand why spending varies.
It also found that the DfE did not have up-to-date assurance on the quality of services for 32% of local authorities, and it has no data on outcomes for children who have been in need of help except for educational outcomes.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, 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.
‘To achieve its new goal of improving the quality of all services by 2020 the department will need to inject more energy, pace and determination in delivering on its responsibilities.’
The report also found ‘wide variations’ between local authorities in the number of repeat child protection plans and rates of referrals accepted.
In response, cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’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.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: 'Keeping children safe from harm is an absolute priority for this Government, which is why in July this year we published plans to deliver excellent children’s social care – strengthening protection for the most vulnerable children and transforming the support available to them.
'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. We have also cut red tape so that social workers can spend more time actually supporting families.'