A local authority hand-picked by the government to help deliver a “blueprint for excellence” in children’s social care has withdrawn from the programme after an Ofsted inspection, Community Care has learned.
Durham council pulled out of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Partners for Practice programme after an inspection report found its children’s services ‘required improvement’. The last Ofsted report, published in 2012, rated services as ‘outstanding’.
Inspectors said the focus on a restructure of the council’s children’s services launched in 2014 had led to a drop of the quality of care provided by some teams.
The council said it accepted Ofsted’s feedback and was “absolutely committed” to making improvements.
Durham was one of nine councils in the Partners in Practice scheme. When it was announced, education secretary Nicky Morgan said the project “represents an exciting new partnership with the country’s best performing local leaders”.
“Together they are redefining what a children’s services department looks like, with the only design principle being what works for children,” she added.
“These local authorities will provide a blueprint for excellence that the whole system will be able to learn from.”
Today Durham told Community Care it had withdrawn from the programme following the Ofsted findings. Inspectors found a service reorganisation had a positive impact across early help services but had distracted from other teams. This meant “the consistently high quality of services identified in the last inspection in 2011 has not been maintained,” the report found.
As part of the redesign, Durham introduced a ‘Families First’ model, backed by more than £3m from the DfE’s innovation fund programme. Ofsted noted “early benefits” in improving joint work with early help services but said it was “too soon” to see the full impact of the restructure.
A combination of the restructure and staff sickness left some children with too many changes of social worker, inspectors found. This damaged their ability to develop lasting relationships with social workers.
The staffing shortages also left some teams with high caseloads. This was potentially increasing risk, although managers had put in arrangements to mitigate these, inspectors found.
Strong early help services
Ofsted inspectors found a strong early help and adoption service, but identified “issues” around the quality of social work practice and recording.
“Analysis is of variable quality and does not sufficiently inform care planning. In addition, care planning is not always robust.
“Many plans are not sufficiently outcome focused, do not have clear timescales for actions to be completed and do not assist in improving outcomes for children. The quality of strategy discussions and child protection enquiries in inconsistent,” Ofsted’s report said.
The adoption service was a “strength”, and showed work that was child focused and ensured lifelong placements for children were at the heart of all practice.
“Children’s progress through care proceedings and planning is effectively tracked to avoid unnecessary delay,” inspectors said.
Ofsted recommended the council continued with plans to ensure sufficient capacity and stability in social work teams. It said the quality of assessments needed to be improved by ensuring they “consistently contain comprehensive and rigorous analysis of all relevant information”.
Council ‘committed to improvement’
Responding to the report, Rachael Shimmin, Durham’s corporate director for children’s and adults services, said: “We accept Ofsted’s feedback and are absolutely committed to making the improvements recommended so that we can deliver the best possible outcomes for every child in County Durham.
“Based on the feedback during the inspection – a great deal of work is already underway to bring these areas up to a consistently ‘good’ standard.
“Our focus on improvement is clear from our innovations programme which is already beginning to deliver results and from our new senior management structure which has been planned since the start of the year, well ahead of this inspection process.
“The current configuration of children’s and adults Services has been reviewed to recognise the scale, significant risk, complexity, statutory requirements and the different policy directions for these service groupings. The new structure will ensure that in these rapidly changing times we can drive continuous improvements.
“It’s important however to note that Ofsted praised a number of key areas of our services. These include our adoption services as well as those for care leavers and the local safeguarding children’s board. Our work on combating Child Sexual Exploitation and services for substance misuse as well as partnership working and staff training and development were also described positively.
“As an ambitious and high achieving council, we continually strive to improve our services and will use the Ofsted feedback to positively and proactively target our improvement activity.”