Social workers in Doncaster are still failing to protect vulnerable children, despite three years of government intervention, according to a blistering Ofsted report, published today.
The troubled council was placed under a government improvement notice in 2009 and brought in a new head of children’s services, following a number of high profile child deaths and the violent attack on two young boys in Edlington.
But inspectors found little evidence of progress during an unannounced 10-day inspection last month, and today rated Doncaster’s child protection services ‘inadequate’.
Unallocated cases and ‘unacceptable’ delays
Inspectors identified 244 unallocated child in need cases, while further analysis of a sample of the cases revealed social workers had not recognised children were at risk from potential harm.
Risks are not consistently managed, inspectors found, noting “systemic and unacceptable” delays in ensuring children’s needs are effectively met. As a result, Doncaster council “cannot be confident that all children known to the children and young people’s services are safe”, the watchdog reported.
Delay and drift was also found to be a concern, compounded by the reduced capacity of managers and inadvisably high social work caseloads. Meaningful relationships with children and families were also hampered by changing social workers and inconsistent planning.
Poor outcomes for children
Although some families valued the support they received, varying levels of practice and risk management at the council meant outcomes for children were still poor.
Inspectors also attacked management arrangements at the council, finding management oversight is “inconsistent” and “lacks rigour”. This means potential risks to children are not always identified, inspectors found, and referrals are not always appropriately actioned.
Doncaster’s Improvement Board and Local Safeguarding Children Board have also failed to provide the strategic oversight and leadership the beleaguered council needs.
These failings undermine the effectiveness of the authority’s audit activity and case review arrangements, and do not enable senior managers to have a clear and confident picture of the strengths and weaknesses of child protection services, inspectors found.
The watchdog praised the council for taking immediate action to address the failings, and setting up a social work team to take responsibility for unallocated cases.
Jo Miller, chief executive of Doncaster Council, was resolute about the failings, saying the report was “a very disappointing result but in some respects not entirely unexpected”. She acknowledged that some children had “undoubtedly been left vulnerable”, but raised concerns about rocketing demand for services.
“When Lord Carlile visited Doncaster, I told him that I believed Doncaster was less than half way towards being where it needed to be, and that remains my view,” Miller said. “Despite being in DFE intervention for over three years, and recognising the increase in demand, we have not improved quickly enough and are not alone. Just under 45% of all councils recently inspected on safeguarding have been deemed to have failed.”
“I am very clear there must be acceleration in our improvement by bringing in increased capacity, and in particular learning from the best councils and other organisations elsewhere. We clearly have a lot of work to do and it will take time, however we have already set the wheels in motion.”
Tougher inspection criteria
The troubled council was thought to be turning a corner last year when it achieved an adequate rating in its last inspection of children’s services. But this year Ofsted has toughened up its inspection criteria, following the Munro Review of child protection.
Bridget Robb, acting chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said any assessment of social work in Doncaster needed to take into account the fact that workers suffered “draconican conditions within a bullying culture”.
“Staff there were recently issued with a ‘signed or be sacked’ ultimatum to accept cuts to their pay and conditions, so it is no surprise that Doncaster has problems recruiting and retaining staff, and has subsequently been downgraded by Ofsted.”
The voice of the child: learning lessons from serious case reviews – A thematic report of Ofsted’s evaluation of serious case reviews