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Breaking the Lock: A new preventative model to improve the lives of vulnerable children and make families stronger

iMPOWER shares the ambition of those in the public sector who believe that we must improve the lives and life chances of the most vulnerable in our society. We have, alongside local public servants, been rolling up our sleeves and working in some of the country’s most complex and challenging environments to help effect whole system change across children’s services. We have drawn on insight from what has worked elsewhere and, in some cases, where there has been a history of systemic failure we have had to rip up the rule book and try something different.

Our experience of working with a range of partners with different challenges gives us license to take a step back and offer a perspective on the bigger picture.

This paper sets out our view of an effective model for children’s services that places the emphasis on prevention and early intervention. We have written it with three goals in mind. Firstly, to support the development of thinking about the future of children’s services; secondly, to test the strength of our conviction against experiences in local government; and finally, to help progress a conversation about what ‘good’ in children’s services looks like in the real world.

Many people reading this paper won’t be surprised that this has placed us at odds with Ofsted, which appears to be looking at children’s services through a one-dimensional lens. Partly, this is because of an outdated approach to inspection that fails to appreciate the role that partner agencies can play in delivering better outcomes for children and families, while also helping to ensure safe access to services for children in need or at risk of being in need. It is also because they have so far proved unwilling to acknowledge that wider public spending pressures are forcing councils to be more innovative when it comes to approaches and models. This reality is therefore not reflected in their assessment of local government’s ability to deliver safe and good quality support and protection for vulnerable children. Critically, the single word judgement issued to councils following an Ofsted inspection does little to describe the overall progress or challenges facing local councils, nor does it provide appropriate balance for the detail that may be present in a report. Rather, it heightens anxiety, increases risk in the system through increasing demand and can lead to significant workforce turbulence. This single word is often all that the majority of people see when the outcome of an inspection is presented in the press and it can have huge consequences for young people, families and professionals at many levels.

Perhaps of greatest concern is the illusory idea that, following the four-week intensity of an Ofsted inspection, a completely broken service can be fixed within six months with a whole series of actions that need to be taken immediately, by a service in chaos, around a series of complex issues.

Our analysis shows that the impact of an negative inspection serves the complete opposite of its purpose to protect children and improve their outcomes. A quick glance at councils recently found to be inadequate demonstrates some stark impacts. These include an increase in work volumes of up to 50% (in already overwhelmed organisations), a significant reduction in timeliness of intervention (leaving children more unsafe) and a surge in staff turnover with the resultant use of an ever more transient and costly agency workforce.