Pressure on a 'strained' social service

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A week after the prime minister threatened social workers with jail if they fail to protect children, the man his government appointed to keep an eye on children's services has warned that growing criticism of social workers is adding to the pressure on a strained service.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills, Sir Michael Wilshaw, uses his annual report on children's social care today to suggest that social workers and managers "do not always get the support and recognition they deserve".

His remarks appear to be a criticism of David Cameron's controversial proposal to introduce tougher sanctions against public sector workers who "wilfully neglect" those at risk of child sexual exploitation. At a meeting in Number 10 last week, Mr Cameron said he would make such failure a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.

However, an online petition to the prime minister asking him to "support social workers not imprison them" has already got close 10,000 signatures, and it appears that Sir Michael has sympathy with that view.

"Stretched budgets are putting additional strain on these crucial services," he writes.

"Social care professionals are often expected to do more with the same or less, all the while knowing that the actions they take and the decisions they make can dramatically change the course of a child's life. Growing public scrutiny and criticism only adds to that pressure."

The Ofsted report today notes how demand for children's social care has increased in the past year:

  • the number of children in need increased by 5% to 397,600,
  • the number of child protection plans increased by 12% to 48,300
  • the number of children in local authority care is now at its highest level since 1987

But councils have also seen significant cuts to their overall budgets and, despite efforts to protect children's services, many are struggling to cope.

Figures in today's report show that spending has remained constant at around £7.8bn since 2010, but that £300m has shifted from prevention to intervention - from schemes that keep children safe to dealing with children known to be at risk.

The Ofsted report cites research by children's services directors suggesting that most local authorities are moving money away from children's centres and youth services to targeted intervention "or ceasing altogether largely due to funding pressures".

Static or falling budgets and increasing demand has also forced some councils to raise the threshold at which they do intervene. Only children facing a high level of risk to their safety will be eligible for help. "If high thresholds for further investigation of concerns were not met, then it was often the case that families were offered no help at all," today's report notes.

"We must recognise the context and constraints within which social workers and their managers work," Sir Michael says. "They have a difficult and demanding role and do not always get the support and recognition they deserve."

The prime minister has expressed his determination to end the "walk-on-by culture" that he feels has become a feature of recent child sexual exploitation scandals. But his watchdog is barking - warning that threatening those on the front line may contribute to making our children less safe rather than more.

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