First, two reports about the care system from the England children's commissioner, followed by the Care Crisis Review, which Ofsted was pleased to contribute to. Add Sir Martin Narey's fostering stocktake into the mix, and it seems that care is very much on the agenda. Despite some of the negative headlines, this is a good thing.
At this time of great focus, both on the numbers of children entering care and the challenges of meeting that need, it's timely that we step back and look at the part that really good, effective social work practice has to play. It's something we say often, but it really cannot be overstated. Creating an environment that allows good social work to flourish is absolutely fundamental to good outcomes for children.
We are of course conscious of local authorities having to take difficult decisions about resources. But having the right culture, that supports good social work practice, is key to making decisions in a timely manner and children receiving the right service.
I'm talking about strong leadership and management oversight, manageable caseloads, and a stable, skilled workforce. In a nutshell: making sure that social workers are able to do their jobs well. The best local authorities also create the space for purposeful direct work and relationship building with children and families. These characteristics, along with a deep-rooted learning culture and strong values-based leadership, underpin consistently excellent court work in outstanding-rated North Lincolnshire, for example.
Added to this, social workers can only make appropriate and timely decisions about children if they have the skills, confidence and support from senior managers to do so. From recent inspections, Rotherham and Stockport are two areas that are doing this particularly well.
The areas doing the best work around care proceedings have been able to focus on both their early help and "edge of care" services. In areas like Shropshire, Walsall and Richmond, timely support, often in partnership with a range of agencies, prevents children entering care when it's not appropriate.
So, of course, the rise in demand is not in and of itself "bad". We know that much of the increase is as a result of the child population growing significantly, as well as from local authorities working more effectively with partners to safeguard children. While we can review cases to check that the threshold for care was met, it is much harder to judge whether children would have needed to be taken into care if additional, more intensive support had been provided earlier.
At Ofsted, we're interested in getting a better understanding of what supports really good decision-making for children in care, including the impact of "edge of care" support on outcomes. Making good decisions is a hugely important area of practice, and one we plan to carry out more research into next year.
- Yvette Stanley is national director for social care at Ofsted