Council failing to meet ‘basic social work standards’, finds Ofsted

Inspectors say entrenched lack of 'professional accountability' at Tower Hamlets council left children at risk

Tower Hamlets town hall and council offices Picture: REX/Shutterstock

Poor practice from senior management down led to “widespread and serious” failings in Tower Hamlets council’s children’s services, Ofsted has found.

Inspectors rated the council’s services as ‘inadequate’ after finding leaders, including the chief executive, directors of children’s services and elected members, were “unaware” that children were being left in harmful situations. Action was only taken after issues were flagged up by inspectors, Ofsted’s report said.

“Senior leaders have not been effective in challenging the entrenched culture of non-compliance with basic social work standards,” the report said.

“The local authority as a whole has failed to ensure professional accountability and, as a result, too many children have remained in neglectful and abusive situations for too long.”

Inspectors found that performance management systems were in place but were unreliable as social workers and managers did not update electronic records and produced assessments and plans of poor quality. Problems had been exacerbated by staff turnover, which in the assessment and intervention team had reached 30% in 2016.

‘Significant decline’

Tower Hamlets’ last Ofsted inspection of safeguarding and looked after children’s services, in July 2012, judged services to be good with some outstanding features. Political and managerial change in the borough had contributed to a “significantly decline” since, inspectors found. After mayor Luftur Rahman was removed from office in 2015 following corruption charges, Tower Hamlets was placed in the hands of government-appointed commissioners, with full powers only being restored to the council in March this year.

Thresholds for intervention were found to be applied inconsistently “at all levels” and weaknesses in case recording made it “impossible” to understand how critical decisions about children’s lives had been made.

More than 25 cases were identified at inspection in which the needs of children in need of help and protection had not been recognised or properly assessed. As well as poor documentation, the Ofsted report noted that child protection conference chairs lacked oversight and did not always challenge situations when necessary.

A culture of “drift and delay” left children waiting to receive the help they needed, meaning family relationships declined and in some cases put young people at risk of being drawn into gang activity, a significant issue in the borough, inspectors found.

‘Lack of understanding’

A further area of concern picked up on by Ofsted was around private fostering arrangements, where they identified a “lack of understanding”. Inspectors highlighted failures to consider whether children had been trafficked, or abandoned by their parents. In most cases basic safeguarding checks had not been carried out.

Tower Hamlets’ local safeguarding children board (LSCB) was also rated as inadequate, on the basis that it was not fulfilling its statutory functions because of a lack of oversight of frontline practice. However, inspectors noted that, following an independent review commissioned in 2016, a new chair had been appointed and was “effectively refocusing the board’s priorities by increased scrutiny”.

Another qualified positive picked up during the inspection was around multi-agency working. While too many children living in violent families were still receiving insufficient support, inspectors found that MARAC meetings were well attended with “timely reporting on actions”. Ofsted inspectors also singled out for praise social workers’ “creative and sensitive work” to protect children from violent extremism.

Tower Hamlets’ services for looked-after children were judged ‘requires improvement’. While inspectors found room for greater consistency, they noted that most children live within 20 miles of home in stable placements that meet their cultural, ethnic and religious needs. “The fostering service is actively recruiting new carers, and it supports carers well,” the Ofsted report said. “Care proceedings are effective for most children in progressing plans for permanence.”

‘Immediate action required’

Ofsted said Tower Hamlets should take immediate action so that “work with children and families is compliant with basic practice standards, and that poor practice is challenged across all service areas.”

The watchdog stated that steps must be taken by the borough to ensure thresholds are applied consistently, children in need of statutory assistance receive it, and assessments and plans are completed to a better standard. Implementing a workforce strategy to improve stability and meet training needs was also highlighted as a priority.

Ofsted noted that leaders at Tower Hamlets council had accepted the inspection findings in full and were “determined” to improve outcomes for children.

“Senior politicians and local authority leaders gave assurances that immediate action will be taken to protect children,” inspectors said.

Will Tuckley, Tower Hamlets’ chief executive, said the authority would be “making it an absolute priority to improve the service, working alongside Ofsted”.

He said: “As time has gone on, we have found more and more problems with the service and, while we have made improvements, they have been not been fast or comprehensive enough.

“The Ofsted report has demonstrated the full scale of work that is needed. We are creating an improvement plan with Ofsted that will meet, and in many cases exceed, their recommendations. It will complement our existing work to improve the service.”

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7 Responses to Council failing to meet ‘basic social work standards’, finds Ofsted

  1. Muhammad Haque April 11, 2017 at 11:17 am #

    You may like to note that this OFSTED report is a rare event in the history of Tower Hamlets Council.
    The Borough has been called one of England’s most deprived Boroughs with its being regularly featured as deprived on all key criteria.
    Yet none of the UK “regulators” has ever wanted to make a link between that depth of deprivation and the lack of Democracy in the locally “elected” Tower Hamlets Council.
    In fact, if the behaviour of the Pickles Commissioners is any guide – and I have examined the Pickes Commissioners for the entirety of their over-hyped “presence” – then it is a demonstrable fact that the UK Government NEEDS Tower Hamlets to remain a Deprived borough.

    1116 Hrs Tues 11 Apr 2017

    • Longtime SW April 11, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

      I agree with you – I believe that one of the ‘Social Work Standards’ used to be that deprivation (poverty in other words) should always be considered as a major contributory factor in assessments

      – I fear that this report will be used as another step towards privatisation of social care – what is not clear is whether a demoralised workforce, probably feeling powerless to make changes in children’s lives end up having a ‘bunker’ mentality

      – Central Govt need to understand that the public gets the service they are prepared to pay for

      – if the non-payers of corporation tax, super rich etc paid their fair share and actually contributed rather than took advantage of a frightened and compliant workforce (in and out of social care) then we could have early intervention services, smaller case loads, community resources to support children and their families paid for and availiable as needed. That will almost at a stroke drive standards up and highlight the empty promises of politicians and their lazy scapegoating of public service as being the cause of society’s problems

  2. Andrew April 11, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

    So for the last 18 months this council has been run by “Government appointed commissioners”.

    I wonder if Ofsted will be taking up with the DfE that the people he appointed oversaw and apparently made little change in a service that is deemed to be failing children.

    Seeing as the Chief Inspector was appointed by the Secretary of State – I don’t think anyone should hold their breath.

    Oh, silly of me – Ofsted is independent of the Government, as well al know.

  3. A Man called Horse April 12, 2017 at 9:44 pm #

    Like I said the Tories Social Policies are driving millions into grinding poverty. The job is badly resourced, badly paid and subject to scapegoating mainly by the Politicians and their pet Tory media. Much cheaper to blame social workers than to stop cutting people’s incomes and driving them into the dirt. Cuts is all Social Workers can look forward to over the next 10 years. AUSTERITY is the problem not Social Workers. Young Social Workers you still have time to retrain for another job anything is better than putting up with the never ending rubbish offered by the Tories.

  4. Kent social worker April 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    If Tower Hamlets last had a good with some outstanding features in the last Ofsted inspection, surely it is incumbent upon the so-called experts from Ofsted to consider that actually it’s not the workforce to blame? However this will be the continuing message relayed over and over again, rather than supporting the workforce to keep children safe, and tackle issues that family face.

    The persistent drip drip approach by the government is in my view, to ensure that Ofsted’s remit to inspection is that social workers remain the scapegoats for their unrelenting drive to ensure that deprivation, poverty, and poor practice remains, and hey, it’s all down to social workers.

    It is all too easy to blame social workers for lack of performance, but with the increasing variables that now need to be considered in assessment, the dangerously high caseloads that is evident in most boroughs, particularly inner London, do Ofsted ever consider that there is now NO time for thinking, refelection and being consistently on top of the game?

    Of course not, we are constantly driven by fear through the courts, Ofsted, public humiliation through naming and shaming, amongst other strategies to ensure that the faceless bureaucrats that are the main drivers of maintaining deprivation and poverty and other awful scourges, will keep local authorities and social workers as the targets of blame.

  5. George McKay April 20, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

    I welcome the inspectors report on the declining standards being observed at the council. However, as usual too much blame is being levelled at the social worker and not enough at senior managers and the child protection services. It appears there was evidence of drift on a number of cases which should have been picked up by the quality assurance officers via the CP conference mechanism . Officers need to have a better oversight of poor practice by ensuring performance indicators are fit for purpose and not just part of data collection exercise.

  6. Rosaline April 20, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    I value and appreciate the role of Ofsted, I hold the view that disproportionality remains worrying. Social workers require professional guidance and oversight, the role of operational managers through to the chief executive. It is imperative that the latters are held to account. Leadership is essential in all organisations, alongside clear vision, innovation, insight, training, development, performance management, data analysis and so on. Where leaders are not using these systems/tools appropriately, they should be assessed through capability measures, immediately following such an Ofsted report. What is frequent, these leaders will move on to the next project with no true commitment to the children of the borough. This is what needs to stop. Allow social workers to be supported developing practitioners.