Now that the dust has settled from the first wave of unannounced inspections, Nic Fell looks at what we can draw from the experience.
The unannounced inspections of Children’s Services have been accused in some quarters of being too rigid and failing to recognise the context in which children’s services are operating. Others have welcomed them more positively for independently assessing performance. One thing is clear, however, the new inspection regime has put local authorities under increased pressure to produce immediate evidence of their performance.
Time is no longer available to prepare documents for a visit. The inspectors need to know what it is you do to whom and what impact it is having. And that information needs to be based on reports on today’s data, not last January’s. This is a sea change for many local authorities who are used to providing reports from data that is often days, weeks or even months old.
A recent survey conducted by Capita Children’s Services uncovered that 67 percent of local authority staff would be nervous about the quality of their children’s services data for an inspection. More worrying still, in light of how quickly the inspectors need to get their hands on good data, 45 percent of respondents said that on average, it took longer than a day for their data services teams to produce an ad-hoc report. This is the sort of delay that will no longer be good enough.
You need to be able show how truancy rates are being tackled, for instance, or demonstrate looked after children are progressing academically. To do this effectively you need to pool your data on children.
One contact I spoke to felt the fact they had to pull data out from numerous different systems was an issue during the no-notice inspection at his authority, “The problem is that we had data on a number of different databases and when we pulled out reports, we could not actually be one hundred percent sure if we were talking about the same children or different ones.”
This is a view echoed by others; not only because of the new inspections process but also because bringing together the data on children means you can gain a better understanding of their circumstances. You can then target your finite resources more effectively and are able to report more easily – for both internal and external reviews – on the overall impact you’re having.
The children, family and adult services team at East Riding of Yorkshire Council have some experience of this approach, sharing data with the youth offending team, education welfare team and a handful of other services. “These services are currently using the same software to store our data on children and have noted that there has been an impact in terms of easier reporting and being able to demonstrate that we are improving outcomes,” says Jane Lodge, data and assessment strategy manager at the council.
However, Jane feels centralising the data has had more significant effects beyond making reporting easier. “Probably the first thing that becomes more obvious when you share the data on vulnerable children – those who have special needs, those who are non-attendees, who are known to social care or are youth offenders – is that the number of actual families you are dealing with is quite small. Many of the children and their siblings fall into more than one category.
“When you pool the data and work more closely together you can start to address the needs of a family as a whole rather than from each service’s perspective and this is when change happens. You start to make a difference as the family gets a cohesive package of support and you can monitor the impact.
“We are sharing live data, which means better decisions – based on a child’s circumstances today, not what was happening in that child’s life a few months ago,” says Lodge. Real-time data is also what the inspectors ideally want to look at too.
Live data also helps the service teams improve as it ensures it is possible to monitor how they are performing against targets, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This ensures any issues can be spotted and addressed before the inspectors uncover them for you.
So the motivation for bringing the data on children together for many authorities may be the worry that on Monday at 9am one of her majesty’s inspectors might be in the office and you will need to demonstrate you are making a difference. However, the improved outcomes that using the same systems and data will bring should not only please the inspectors, but help the different services ensure change can happen for vulnerable families.
Nic Fell is product director at Capita Children’s Services.
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