The Department for Education (DfE) has ordered an inadequate-rated council to comply with a two-year ‘peer support’ programme from a fellow London borough as it seeks to get its children’s services back on track.
The statutory direction, issued this week to Croydon council, replaces one made in January that told the authority to develop a proposal for assistance from good-rated Camden.
An Ofsted monitoring report published at the same time, focusing on services to vulnerable adolescents, found that practice at Croydon remained “highly variable”.
In September 2017, inspectors uncovered “widespread and serious failures” at the outer London borough and appointed commissioner Eleanor Brazil to consider the future of its children’s services.
Brazil’s involvement with the council will end with the new order from the DfE. Under the terms of the peer support arrangement, a statement from Croydon said, senior officers from Camden will provide advice around “priority areas” including the development of a new social care one-stop contact point.
‘Openness to guidance’
Encouragingly for the new partnership, Ofsted noted that Croydon’s managers “showed an openness to advice, guidance and support” and to “considering their practice and the quality of services” during their monitoring visit, carried out in March.
“In a relatively short period of time, senior leaders have started to put in place an effective infrastructure,” inspectors found.
“There is a sound understanding of the areas that require change and an appropriate focus on the areas of priority.”
A list of positive factors identified during the inspection included strong initial engagement with Camden, “significantly improved” auditing processes, and visits carried out to children by the director of children’s social care.
Poor management oversight
But the visit, which took in both casework reviews and interviews, concluded that “too many children receive an inadequate service”.
While the “broad issue of risk” for vulnerable adolescents was recognised, inspectors said, “a detailed understanding of the risks and what needs to happen in response is not always evident or clear”.
Ofsted said that management oversight was ineffective and that middle managers in particular were not a “visible presence”. Written plans and records were found to be “highly variable” in terms of quality and content.
Inspectors noted that these general failings mirrored ones flagged up elsewhere in Croydon’s children’s services.
Ofsted also noted some concerns more specific to the adolescent client group whose services were being evaluated. There were “some examples of inappropriate use of language or terminology that implied children placed themselves at risk”, the monitoring report said.
Some cases had not been appropriately escalated by managers to the local multi-agency sexual exploitation (MASE) panel, and the MASE itself was found not to be functioning effectively.
“Examples were seen of actions not followed up and confusion among practitioners about the role of the panel and how it fits with other forums to consider similar risks,” Ofsted said.
Staff turnover and an agency rate of 41% also meant some children faced too many changes of social worker, inspectors found, with newer staff also being “hampered at times by a legacy of previous poor practice”.
Nonetheless, the report praised the work of Croydon’s staff. “Inspectors were consistently impressed with the quality of frontline practitioners,” it said. “They displayed a good awareness of the needs of the children they worked with and a real commitment to ensuring that they engaged well with children.”
‘Much to be done’
Responding to the report, Croydon council leader Tony Newman said he was “pleased” that Ofsted had found progress was being made, and that the watchdog had praised frontline social workers.
“We’re still at a very early stage in our improvement journey and there’s much to be done to ensure we offer every child and young person the high-quality service we’re determined they’ll have,” Newman said. “We’ll maintain our focus, putting the children and families we serve at the heart of everything we do.”
Newman added that he was glad that Brazil and the DfE had shown “confidence” in the agreement entered into with Camden.
“We have a strong partnership and look forward to continuing to work with them,” he said.