The Government has admitted it does not have a single detailed action plan to deliver high-quality care to all children despite previously claiming one existed.
Its admission comes after education secretary Nadhim Zahawi commissioned a national review into the deaths of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, who suffered an unsurvivable brain injury while in the sole care of his father’s ‘evil’ partner, and 16-month-old Star Hobson, who was killed in Bradford by her mother’s partner.
As the review considers the shocking cases, the Department for Education (DfE) is expected to face its own questions after committing in 2016 to delivering a programme of reform in children’s social care by 2020, with the target for delivery later slipping to this year.
A July 2016 DfE policy paper read: ‘By 2020 our ambition is that all vulnerable children, no matter where they live, receive the same high quality of care and support, and the best outcome for every child is at the heart of every decision made.’
In February 2019, then permanent secretary at the DfE, Jonathan Slater, claimed the department had produced a ‘detailed plan’ for which he was ‘happy to be held to account for’.
However, the DfE has now told The MJ that ‘there isn’t one single action plan’ and ‘there was no delivery date as such as this doesn’t refer to one specific programme’.
Shadow education minister Lord Watson said: ‘I do not like the blame game but, in the case of little Arthur, if it is to begin then let it begin at the top, with a department that is inexplicably unable even to put in place a plan to protect the most vulnerable children in society.’
The DfE pointed out that since 2020 the Government’s focus had been on the pandemic but did confirm it had an ‘ambition of seeing 10% or fewer local authorities being rated inadequate by the earliest opportunity’.
As of August, the number of inadequate local authorities stands at 20 (13%) – down from 30 (19.6%) in April 2017 – though Ofsted inspections were paused for more than a year due to the pandemic.
A March 2019 report by the Public Accounts Committee said the DfE should also ‘specify a percentage target for how many local authorities it was aiming to be rated as good or outstanding by 2022’.
In response, the department said it agreed it should be ‘aiming to see as many authorities as possible rated good or outstanding by 2022’ but refused to come up with a specific target, arguing ‘how far and how fast we are able to go’ depended on Treasury decisions on DfE and local authority budgets.
A DfE spokesperson said: ‘We continue to tackle failure in local authorities and we are investing in sector-led support that drives up performance.
'Our approach works: at the end of March 2021, 50% of councils were judged good or outstanding at their most recent Ofsted inspection, compared to 36% at the end of March 2017.’