Call to dump central advisers
Efforts to create effective new local authority children's services departments are being undermined by the plethora of central government advisers monitoring them, one of New Labour's favourite think-tanks has warned.
In a report on reforming children's services, Demos, which describes itself as "the think-tank for everyday democracy", describes an ongoing war of attrition between central and local government that "can only have negative consequences for young people".
It calls on central government to abandon its "command and control"
approach and says local authorities should be able to commission advice as and when they need it.
The report, to be published on Wednesday, also calls for changes to inspections to allow local authorities and schools to get more from the process.
Demos is highly critical of the large number of central government advisers assigned to local authorities.
It gives the example of one children's services department which had 19 separate advisers working with it on everything from Sure Start to drugs and the primary strategy.
Funding given by the Government to local authorities for a wide range of activities and policy goals came with an "adviser" attached, Demos found.
Its report said: "The key point here is the serious damage to the relationship between central and local government that is being caused by the present lack of clarity surrounding these 'advisory' roles.
"As it stands, many roles combine advice and performance management, meaning that authorities can feel unsure whether they are being advised or monitored at any given moment."
The result was defensive or even adversarial relationships between the two tiers of government, Demos argued.
"One leader in a local authority told us that they had become so exasperated that they had simply decided to stop meeting anyone from central government at all," the report said.
To create more constructive relationships it recommends that central government leaders should have spent a minimum of six months working in local government and vice versa.
Demos calls for schools and local authorities to be given the right to recall Ofsted inspectors for strategy and planning days after their report has been published.
This would be an opportunity for heads and local authority leaders to draw on the experience inspectors have gained from other schools and authorities, in a more constructive environment.
The think-tank also wants to boost inspectors' credibility by ensuring that at least one member of each Ofsted school inspection team spends at least 60 days a year working in a school.
It recommends that inspectors are assigned on the basis of their experience so that those who had worked in large urban schools would also inspect them.
For local authority inspections it says at least one member of every inspection team should be working in another authority, preferably in the management tier directly below the director of children's services.
The policy would help to spread good ideas, boost the credibility of inspections and broaden the experience of the next generation of directors of children's services, it argues.
The Department for Education and Skills said in response that it was working to streamline and improve the support to local authorities available through its advisers.
An Ofsted spokeswoman said it recognised the importance of having practitioners as inspectors and was working to the increase their numbers.
It already ensured that the deployment of inspectors matched their experience, she said.
The Leadership Imperative: reforming children's services from the ground up, by Hannah Lownsbrough and Duncan O'Leary, will be available at www.demos.co.uk.
Children's Agenda 29