Ofsted has blamed a “decline in strategic leadership” for widespread social work failings, especially around neglect, which have seen a local authority branded ‘inadequate’.
Inspectors found children’s services at Blackpool council were failing to respond to risk and allowing cases to drift, leaving some children at risk of significant harm and the needs of many unmet.
“Senior leaders, including the chief executive and political leadership, have had an optimistic view of practice improvement and have underestimated the [resulting] impact on children,” the regulator’s report said. “This is a serious failure.”
The local authority had been judged ‘inadequate’ in 2012. But by 2014 it had begun turning things around, gaining a ‘requires improvement’ grade in a further inspection that year.
Since then, however, things had gone downhill to an extent only partly recognised by council bosses, Ofsted said.
This lack of awareness meant that despite a new director of children’s services, Diane Booth, being appointed 18 months ago, progress by the time of the inspection in December 2018 had been limited.
“[Leaders] have been unable to effectively address some of the serious issues that negatively impact on children’s lives,” inspectors said.
Services for children in care and care leavers provided the only real bright spot in the latest report. Ofsted rated these ‘requires improvement’, as at the last inspection, and noted some “focused improvement” implemented by Booth.
Section 20 placements were being used appropriately in the short term, inspectors found. Meanwhile the majority of children in care were “living in stable placements within the North West [with] social workers [able to] keep in touch and develop a detailed understanding of their needs”.
Plans for children in care were kept updated, the report said, but were not as tailored as they could be to individuals’ needs; nor did they adequately reflect social workers’ aspirations for children. Staff turnover was also hindering effective relationships being formed between practitioners and children.
Social workers were also being poorly prepared for court to present plans for permanence, Ofsted said, hampering efforts to achieve good outcomes for children.
‘Needs not responded to’
Child protection services in Blackpool were deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, with “many children’s needs not responded to in the right way or at the right time”.
Referrals into Blackpool’s multi-agency safeguarding hub were too often light on information, inspectors said, and typically were followed up in too shallow a manner.
“This means crucial information can be missed and, therefore, decisions are made on partial information, which may leave children vulnerable and at risk,” Ofsted said.
In some instances cases were being stepped down inappropriately to early help – identified as one of the stronger service areas – despite meeting the threshold for statutory intervention.
Where child protection investigations commenced, procedures were usually followed. But the uneven quality of inquiries did not provide for solid decision-making, Ofsted said.
“There are sometimes over-optimistic views about parental capacity to change, despite significant safeguarding concerns,” the report said. “As a result, risks are not sufficiently recognised for some children.”
Across both duty and safeguarding teams, social work practice was too variable, Ofsted found.
“Children’s views do not consistently inform plans, which are too brief, task-focused and lack clear timescales or contingency arrangements,” inspectors said. “Regular core groups for children on child protection plans take place but progress is not always well recorded.”
Where situations did not improve, timely action was not always taken, the report added, noting that Blackpool council had acknowledged its use of the Public Law Outline was “not robust”.
The local authority’s response to children and young people at risk of exploitation was identified as another weak spot. “The language used in records to describe children’s vulnerabilities is sometimes inappropriate and places the responsibility on children for the risks they are exposed to,” the inspection report said.
Issues around contextual safeguarding were “not fully understood” by senior leaders, Ofsted said, with the absence of a strategy described as a “significant concern”.
“Children who go missing do not always receive a timely return home interview,” inspectors wrote. “There is limited intelligence-gathering to explore risk in more detail or consider wider factors, as the interview is limited to an account from the child.”
A statement from Blackpool council said its leader, Simon Blackburn, has instigated urgent action in response to Ofsted’s judgment, which included a list of recommendations headed by improvements to risk response, front-door decision-making and social work assessments.
Blackburn said the publication of the inspection report marked a “difficult day” for everyone at the local authority.
“No politician wants to hear that arguably the most important service in the council is considered to be inadequate,” he said.
“No director wants to share this sort of result with social workers who work tirelessly every day to protect some of our most vulnerable families,” Blackburn went on, adding that he had full confidence in Booth.
“Improvement is a journey and there is no suggestion from Ofsted that we are on the wrong path,” Blackburn said. “They are concerned about the pace at which improvements are being made by the council and all of its partners including police and health, and I agree with them.”
The council’s statement said that a 12-week plan was being implemented to ensure the council and its partners carried out prompt improvements.