Children’s experiences and progress are still at the heart of ILACS. The biggest change is the move from a four-week inspection every four years to much more regular contact and a wider suite of inspection ‘tools’. The inspections are risk-based, proportionate, and tailored to a local authority’s specific circumstances.
ILACS involves an annual engagement meeting for all local authorities; shorter, one-week inspections for authorities previously judged good or outstanding; two-week standard inspections for those requiring improvement to be good; with focused visits in between and regular monitoring for inadequate authorities before we re-inspect.
Most crucially, it aims to support improvement and catch those who aren’t improving before they fall.
So far, about 60 per cent of areas inspected under the new approach have improved their grading, and the proportion moving out of ‘inadequate’ at re-inspection is similar. This is not a lowered bar: we are using the same grade descriptors, and where local authorities aren’t performing well, we will be very clear about that. To date, sector colleagues tell me that ILACS is tough, but fair.
The good news is that we have seen many places using their previous inspection outcome and better self-evaluation to create an environment for good decision-making and good social care practice to thrive. Ultimately, this helps ensure children are better protected.
Where these building blocks aren’t in place, our reports identify what needs to improve. For significant concerns, we will set out ‘areas for priority action’, which we expect the local authority to respond to swiftly with an action plan.
Of course, it is difficult to talk about performance without the spectre of finances surfacing. Indeed, one of the most common questions I get from chief executives is: “How do I know that my director of children’s services is managing spend, as well as managing risk to children?”
Many local authorities are achieving this delicate balance, making effective decisions for children even in a tough financial climate.
The best places have the elements you would expect in common: a stable leadership team, well-implemented models of practice, and a direct line of sight to, and understanding of, the risks frontline staff are managing. Absolutely critical is manageable caseloads, which mean social workers can do effective direct work with families, and make good, timely decisions.
We are, of course, conscious of context when we inspect. But our role is to assess practice and its impact on children and families. We all know the cost of inadequacy, both reputational and financial.
I would argue that getting it right – right child, right support, right time – is the most efficient use of hard-pressed resources.
In inspections to date, I have seen a sector that, despite the massive challenge of increasing demand and tightening funding, is ever more resourceful, and eager to get the most impact for children within that context. That’s good for local authorities and, most importantly, good for our most vulnerable children and families.