Children’s Services Ofsted Judgements, Funding, and Poverty: A level playing field?

Social Work Social Policy

This post summarises a research article that explored whether Ofsted judgements over the past ten years were associated with local authority expenditure and levels of deprivation. The inspectorate has previously maintained that funding and deprivation pale in comparison to leadership, but is this true? Our research suggests that higher spending on early help and family support and lower poverty is associated with a greater likelihood of positive ratings.

Calum Webb (The University of Sheffield)

“In any case, we have found no significant correlation between levels of deprivation and the performance of children’s services. Nor can it be put down to funding levels – some of the authorities judged inadequate are among the highest spenders.”

In 2017, Paul Bywaters, Tim Sparks, and I challenged this statement from Ofsted in an article written for Community Care. This later led to some revision of the claim in a following Ofsted report, which acknowledged that there may be some association between levels of deprivation and children’s services Ofsted outcomes. Later, research by David Wilkins and Vivi Antonopoulou reported an association between levels of deprivation and Ofsted outcomes, but found no association between local authority expenditure and Ofsted outcomes (see: Wilkins and Antonopoulou, 2020a, and Wilkins and Antonopoulou, 2020b).

This week, a new paper authored by Davara Bennett (University of Liverpool), Paul Bywaters (Huddersfield University), and me was published in Social Policy and Society. We found that levels of deprivation and levels of expenditure on early help and family support services were significant predictors of a positive (Good or Outstanding) Ofsted judgement.

More money, better odds

Every £100 per child increase in early help and family support-related spending was associated with around a 1.7 times increase in the odds of receiving a Good or Outstanding Ofsted rating, after controlling for deprivation, the year of the inspection, and levels of safeguarding expenditure. To put this number in context, over the 2010 decade the highest level of expenditure per child on these services was around £1,000 and the lowest was around £90 per child, with the average local authority spending somewhere between £220 and £380 per child, indicating that multiple increments of increase of this value would not be unrealistic.

However, we found no association between ‘safeguarding’ expenditure (that is, expenditure largely associated with the social work workforce and child protection functions) and Ofsted outcomes. We suspect this along with some methodological differences may explain why previous analyses by the National Audit Office, and by Wilkins and Antonopoulou, may have found no association between expenditure and Ofsted outcomes.

We believe that this evidence suggests that greater capacity to invest in early help and family support — capacity that has declined rapidly and inequitably over the 2010 decade — may help reduce failure demand in children’s services; meaning increases in demand that are associated with a failure to do something, or to do something right (Seddon and Brand, 2008). Rick Hood (2015) describes the impact of failure demand on children’s services as leading to a state where:

“[I]ssues that are not resolved straightaway keep reappearing and cumulatively start to overload the system’s ability to cope”

The figure below shows how Ofsted judgements of local authorities have been distributed across three tertiles of expenditure on early help and family support between 2012-13 (after Ofsted replaced ‘adequate’ with ‘required improvement to be good’) and 2019-2020, after adjusting for deprivation. The third of local authorities with the highest deprivation-adjusted expenditure on early help and family support have been notably more likely to receive Good or Outstanding Ofsted outcomes than those with relatively middling or low expenditure per child on these services.