The quest to improve children’s social care services

Chloe Gill introduces new research which will help us to understand what ‘good’ means in children’s social care

Children paintingThere’s a large amount of information, guidance and support aimed at helping statutory children’s social care improve the services they provide. This includes policy guidelines, research findings, practice guidance and pilot programmes.

Yet, some authorities struggle to get a ‘good’ Ofsted judgement. Others move between ‘good’ and ‘inadequate’ and back again.

Research led by the Child Outcomes Research Consortium (CORC) in partnership with the NSPCC, Loughborough University and a researcher affiliated with the University of East London, wanted to explore exactly how children’s services departments in England could bring about improvement and avoid failure.

First, we needed to conduct a feasibility study to pin down what “good” means, so that we could identify a sample of stronger and weaker authorities to be involved in the main research. We hoped the feasibility study would enable us to start exploring the processes involved in improving children’s social care services.

In this post, I’m reflecting on the results of that feasibility study and discussing what they mean for the research that was originally proposed.

What does “good” mean?

When it comes to children’s social care services, some feel that we rely too heavily on the Ofsted judgements, and it isn’t always clear how an official judgement relates to other indicators of performance.

While some local authorities seem to keep doing well, others struggle to make the necessary progress towards improvement.

In addition, overall Ofsted judgements don’t necessarily give us an insight into the variations in underlying practice being carried out in an authority – or reflect the outcomes being achieved for children.

Without a thorough consensus of what “good” means, it’s not possible to make recommendations about how these services could improve.

The feasibility study

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the primary aim of our feasibility study was to find a definition of “good” that did not just rely on Ofsted judgements. This definition would be used to identify local authorities to take part in the main research.

The feasibility study started in early 2015.

I worked as part of a team on a literature review, focusing on social care improvement and organisational change, while another team worked on the data analysis.

The literature review

Using the NSPCC library, we found the most up-to-date literature, reviewing over 100 documents and including summaries of the 57 most relevant reports, pulling out the key findings from each.

The literature we included fell into 4 groups:

  • Outcomes - what local authorities were hoping to achieve for children
  • Services - delivery of services that are of good quality and fit for purpose
  • Effective social work models - new or tested services, some with remodelled social work or multi-professional teams
  • Organisational factors - what successful organisations needed to have in place (learning culture, strong leadership, etc).

The data analysis 

The data analysis aimed to find out if local authorities’ Ofsted ratings matched children’s outcome data collected by the Department for Education (DfE).

We ranked local authorities across 14 outcome and workforce indicators to find out which ones consistently appeared in the top or bottom for each outcome.

We then used regression analysis to test the relationship between individual indicators and Ofsted ratings.

The data analysis presented challenges for different reasons: certain indicators could be interpreted differently - for example, the statistics about the number of children who returned home from care do not indicate what level of support they and their families were receiving and whether this was deemed appropriate; and not all local authorities had been inspected under the new inspection framework.

Feasibility study findings

The feasibility study found a range of opinions in the literature about what good social care looks like, and few examples of objective measuring of outcomes.

The data analysis team found that there was no match between the Ofsted judgements and the DfE children’s outcomes data for local authorities. Only 1 child outcome variable and 1 workforce variable had a statistically significant relationship with the Ofsted ratings.

This begs the question: how can local authorities, and other children’s organisations, know what they’re aiming for?

This lack of clarity is particularly challenging when local authorities are negotiating spending cuts, restructures, social work reform and new inspection frameworks.

If measures used by Ofsted and the DfE are the basis of important local and national decision-making about the future of children’s services departments, who should define them, how connected should they be, and how should children’s voices influence them?

We held a stakeholder event to share our findings. The policy makers, social work experts and academics working in the field were particularly interested in our study.

They voiced some doubts about what the Ofsted framework was really measuring and were vocal in their belief that not enough is known about what “good” means across the sector.

The feasibility study proved that an agreed understanding of “good” still has to be developed.

A new research proposition

The feasibility study was supposed to be a first step in building a more comprehensive understanding of improvement in children’s social care. But the research findings made us realise that this is premature.

We will be involved in the advisory group for the next stage of research taking place in 2017-2018. NatCen Social Research and a researcher affiliated with the University of East London will lead the group, in partnership with the Anna Freud Centre and Loughborough University.

As a direct result of the feasibility study, this research will now focus on developing a theory of change and outcomes framework for children’s social care services, testing it in a number of authorities.

The idea is to develop a shared understanding of what “good” means.

As well as gathering input from local authorities and experts, the next stage of research will also directly involve service users to inform a new set of outcome indicators.

The new research should give us a much better understanding of what “good” actually means for children’s social care services. This will be a valuable first step in measuring outcomes for children’s services and improving the support we offer to vulnerable children.

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