Widespread failings in multi-agency working and information sharing in Tameside mean risks to children often aren’t fully understood, inspectors have found.
Examples of good practice in the council’s children’s services were “exceptions” despite some progress, according to a report on an Ofsted monitoring visit in January 2018, the fourth since Tameside was judged ‘inadequate’ in December 2016.
Those examples were “the result of work done by individual practitioners rather than any systemic improvement”, it added.
Inspectors were particularly critical of multi-agency working, finding that the quality of information gathered to inform decisions about referrals was “often poor”.
“While most cases seen had information from schools, there was often an absence of information from other key agencies, such as health services and the police,” the report said.
“This means that children’s and parents’ needs are not fully understood.”
While immediate action is taken to keep children at risk of harm safe, strategy discussions usually only involved social care and the police, and “few of them involve other agencies”, Ofsted added.
Risk evaluation ‘ineffective’
Agencies “do not routinely contribute by sharing information, which leads to ineffective evaluation of risk”, inspectors found.
“The majority of cases seen during this visit demonstrated a lack of information from health services and the police,” the report said. “This means that decisions about the levels of risk to children are being made without the benefit of full and accurate information.”
Similar failings were identified in child protection investigations, where in some cases social workers or the police undertook single-agency action before strategy discussions had taken place.
In the “vast majority of cases seen”, information about the health needs of families was not obtained during the investigation period, “leading to incomplete evaluation of the presenting risks”.
The report added: “The lack of effective information gathering at all stages of a child’s journey means that the local authority cannot be sure that thresholds for decision-making are applied consistently or appropriately. As a result, children may not be getting the right support at the right time.”
‘Early signs of success’
Overall, inspectors found that there was “still considerable work to do to improve the quality” of child protection practice.
While Tameside had taken action to “address the previously slow pace of improvement” and there had been “some early signs of success”, the changes had “not yet had a sufficient impact on the service that children receive”.
Ofsted noted the recent impact of a new dedicated director of children’s services (DCS) post, after the council separated the DCS and director of adult services roles in September 2017.
Following the appointment in October of an experienced interim DCS, James Thomas (formerly of Newham and Westminster councils), Tameside had developed an “accurate self-assessment… [which] demonstrates a good understanding of the scale of change required in systems, culture and practice”. In addition, its revised improvement plan “shows more focus on improving outcomes for children”.
‘Social workers positive’
The report said social workers welcomed the “visibility of new senior leaders”, and felt the improvement plan “offers clearer direction and an increased focus on children”.
Workloads had become “more manageable for many social workers” following a reduction in caseloads across all teams, though they “remain high” in some.
A consultant social worker was ensuring newly qualified social workers received “good levels of support and supervision”.
But while there had been an increase in the number of social work posts and the permanent workforce was “stabilising”, there was “a reliance on high numbers of agency staff in some teams”, and the turnover of agency staff “continues to present a risk to practice improvement”.
In a statement, Tameside council said it was “pleased that Ofsted recognised we have taken appropriate action to accelerate the pace of improvement, and that we have an accurate understanding of ourselves, and that they recognise that it will take time for the new leadership and new improvement plan to have impact as at this point the quality of our social work with children and families is still not good enough”.
It added: “We are also pleased that inspectors found many examples of good practice and importantly did not find any children who had been left at risk. They also found improvement in management oversight of the service and reduced caseloads for social workers, and commended the commitment of our social workers.
“However, we know there remains significant work to do to ensure that every child and family receives the right support at the right time in Tameside and we remain unwavering in our commitment to deliver the improvement needed to make this happen.”
– while assessments are completed in a timely way for all children, the vast majority of those seen by inspectors “only focused on the single presenting issue, and had significant gaps in their evaluation of history”.
– written plans were not child focused enough, and do not have clear outcomes, actions and timescales.
– case recording “does not reflect the work that is undertaken in order to help children”. Social workers had compiled good chronologies in a “small number” of cases, but these were mostly lacking.
– there is regular case discussion recorded on most children’s files, but records “do not yet evidence reflective discussion or analysis”, and there is “still not enough challenge from managers regarding the quality of practice”.
– there had been “some improvement” in the frequency and quality of supervision, but more work was needed to ensure this was consistent for all staff.