Ofsted has identified areas of “significant weakness” in a local authority’s children’s services after inspectors found a poorly understood application of thresholds and “considerable drift and delay”.
A focused visit to St Helens council’s children in need and child protection services found “poor threshold decision-making and delays when escalating children’s cases to child protection plans” and that the council was failing to address “poor and harmful living conditions for too many children”.
“Social workers do not always take effective or timely action when children are living in neglectful circumstances with their families. These weaknesses in practice are not tackled because management oversight across all levels in children’s social care is poor,” inspectors said.
Ofsted highlighted that the council’s strategic director of people services, Professor Sarah O’Brien, had notified the watchdog of “serious shortfalls in practice” found during her first weeks in the role. O’Brien, in post since June this year, “has already revised the children’s plan and has instigated a full review of the many policies and procedures that govern the work undertaken by children’s social care”, Ofsted said.
Poorly recorded supervision
The visit highlighted little improvement since the council’s last inspection in late 2014, when it was judged as ‘requires improvement’, in the recognition of and response to children’s wishes and feelings. Ofsted said that “while children’s wishes and feelings are recorded on most case files, and social workers demonstrated that they know the children well, this does not always convert into child-focused and timely plans to improve children’s daily lived experiences”.
Ofsted found that while supervision was occurring, it was “poorly recorded”, with social workers reporting that reflection on what is working well and discussions relating to direct work with children were less common.
It noted that there has been a significant reduction in the number of children subject to a child protection plan over the past year, with appropriate decisions taken to ‘step down’ but “there is little confidence expressed by the workforce that thresholds are being consistently applied for children whose needs require an increased level of intervention”.
Inspectors heard that social workers felt caseloads had fallen to a “manageable level” following a restructure of the service last year and a recent improvement in recruitment and retention. Newly qualified social workers were said to have praised the support they are getting during their assessed and supported year in employment, and inspectors recognised the “calibre” of many social workers.
“The planned improvements in management oversight, supervision, quality assurance processes and consistent models of social work practice suggest that social workers may be better supported to undertake their roles in the future,” Ofsted noted.
O’Brien said: “We accept the findings of this letter and are determined to make the necessary changes and improve outcomes and experiences for our children and young people.
“Since our last inspection in 2014 we have been working hard to make improvements, however they have not delivered the impact we wanted.
“The letter has shown the areas in which action is needed, and we have taken immediate steps by setting up an improvement board, to oversee delivery of the action plan. The first meeting of the improvement board has already met in shadow form, and we will be working together with colleagues from the region, Ofsted and the Local Government Association to make further improvements.
“The care and safety of vulnerable children and young people is an absolute priority for this council and we will do whatever it takes to make sure that we are providing them with the high quality services that they deserve.”
Council leader Derek Long added: “This situation is completely unacceptable. In the few weeks since I became leader, it has become clear that the council has to change its thinking and approaches to how we fund and deliver children’s services in the borough. I have demanded immediate action and the establishment of the improvement board will drive forward those changes.”