A London borough has pulled off a “dramatic” turnaround of its children’s services thanks to political will and “sustained investment” in social workers, Ofsted has found.
In a report published today, inspectors deemed Bromley council – which received an across-the-board ‘inadequate’ judgment in mid-2016 – to be ‘good’, with ‘outstanding’ leadership.
The local authority escaped having its children’s services moved to a trust model after the 2016 inspection, after a commissioner told ministers doing so could upset progress already underway.
A series of monitoring visits during 2017 and 2018 found steady improvements were ongoing in various service areas.
In the latest visit for the council’s inspection in late November, Ofsted said the pace of change at the council “continues unabated”, driven by a mixture of corporate and political support, with recommendations “tackled with vigour”.
“The lead member for children’s services is also the deputy leader of the council, a deliberate decision to ensure that children are front and centre throughout corporate and strategic planning,” inspectors said. “This is further enhanced by the executive director, ensuring, through his leadership of wider services, that cross-departmental issues and decisions are underpinned by a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of need, meaning that children are supported as they move into adulthood.”
‘Sustained focus on stability’
Bromley’s workforce strategy was a rare bright spot in its 2016 inspection report, with Ofsted describing it as “comprehensive and ambitious”.
In their latest visit inspectors praised the council’s “sustained focus on increasing stability and capacity”. They singled out the ‘Bromley promise’ offered by the council, which pledges low caseloads, small teams and time for reflective supervision, as having been integral to recruitment and retention.
Previously weak oversight of social work practice had seen major improvements, Ofsted said, thanks to “highly effective” quality assurance arrangements and the commissioning of a dedicated service improvement team.
“Senior leaders, including the chief executive and lead member, have a clear understanding of frontline practice and interrogate performance information effectively in order to continue to improve,” inspectors said. “Improved accountability means that there is sharp analysis and challenge, ensuring issues are tackled as they arise.”
One area in which inspectors said social work leaders had made notable gains was in improving partners’ understanding of thresholds and managing referrals into services.
Within the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), Ofsted said “highly efficient systems mean that no referrals or work are missed, and there is an attention to detail that is evident throughout the decision-making process”.
“Staff demonstrate a professional curiosity, which means wider needs and risks are considered, in addition to the presenting issues,” inspectors added.
Across child protection services, Ofsted found that direct work with children had become a “significant strength”.
“Many different tools are used to elicit children’s wishes and feelings, complemented by reflective observations by social workers that pick up on non-verbal cues,” the inspection report said.
“Children’s voices and experiences sing out in their assessments and plans, and social workers give priority to forming strong, trusting relationships.”
Vulnerable adolescents were also now receiving a good service, the report said, with a new exploitation panel and joint working between children’s services and police providing “highly effective” safety planning for young people at high risk.
‘Comprehensive, child-centred assessments’
Decisions around taking children into care in Bromley were “well-considered”, Ofsted said, thanks to “comprehensive, balanced and child-centred assessments which take into account the views of other professionals as well as children and their families”.
Social workers were found to see children in care regularly. Inspectors noted that practitioners maintained logs about their history, helping them understand early life experiences and reducing the need for repeating stories if they were transferred to a new social worker.
“Arrangements for spending time with birth families are sensitively considered and timely,” Ofsted said. “Inspectors saw some lovely examples of creative ways to improve the quality of the time that children spend with their families.”
The quality of looked-after reviews had also “markedly improved”, inspectors added. “There is now an embedded, timely system in place, and this is enhanced by independent reviewing officers visiting children between reviews, helping children to participate meaningfully and to influence the decision-making about their future.”
Responding to the inspection report, Bromley council’s executive member for children and families, Peter Fortune, said he was proud of staff and councillors’ “unflinching dedication” to children and young people in the borough.
“To go from where Bromley children’s services were two years ago to a position of strength with ‘outstanding’ leadership, and a ‘good’ overall rating across all services is unheard of in this time frame,” Fortune said.
He added: “Despite the hard-earned success we have achieved so far, we won’t be resting on our laurels. Bromley will continue its improvement journey towards even higher aspirations for the children and young people of our borough.”