Inspectors have criticised leaders and managers for failing “on the most basic of levels” to ensure children are safeguarded in Stoke-on-Trent.
In a damning Ofsted report, published today, inspectors found cases were being closed leaving children at risk of significant harm, while children in care were on the receiving end of poor assessments and care plans, and crisis-driven, “frightening and unsettling” placement moves.
No social workers were having one-to-one case supervision with a manager, resulting in little case direction, prioritisation and challenge, while caseloads across the service were too high.
“This impacts negatively on [staff’s] ability to carry out core social work tasks,” the report said. “Children who met with inspectors commented negatively about their experience of seeing many different social workers, which prevents them from building a relationship with someone they can trust.”
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Performance had declined sharply since Stoke’s previous inspection in 2015, when it was rated as requires improvement, and the inspectorate said there had been a “corporate failure” to address the serious and widespread problems identified in the latest report.
Child left at significant harm
In relation to children in need and child protection, Ofsted found cases were being inappropriately closed where there were clear presenting issues of children being at risk of significant harm. This included because managers and practitioners were failing to take account of historical concerns and the council was working in isolation from other agencies.
Investigating social workers and managers did not routinely attend strategy discussions, leaving workers ill-prepared when they saw children and families, resulting in children being poorly protected, Ofsted found.
It said practitioners were over-optimistic about parents’ ability to change, based on limited information, and focused on parents at the expense of the impact of their behaviour on children. These failings were against a backdrop of locality safeguarding teams carrying average caseloads of over 25, which Ofsted said compromised their ability to carry out their responsibilities.
Widespread looked-after children failings
The report also found widespread and serious failings in relation to services for looked-after children.
Since the 2015 inspection, there had been an increase in looked-after children from 600 to 850, which inspectors said had had a “seriously negative impact on the capacity of social workers and the sufficiency of placements”.
Assessments and care plans were generally poor, while inspectors said “reactive and crisis-driven” practice meant too many children had been placed in care in an unplanned way,
“Too many children move placements in a crisis, which is frightening and unsettling for them and not good for their emotional health and wellbeing,” Ofsted said.
While children were seen regularly, social workers did not have time to do direct work because of very high caseloads.
Misuse of section 20
Inspectors highlighted a “widespread lack of understanding and use” of section 20 arrangements for working in partnership with parents.
“Inspectors found children who appeared to have been accommodated without any legal basis, with no documentation and no apparent explanation to their parents of their rights. Some children had been identified as having no one with parental responsibility, and there were decisions taken for this to be resolved to protect the children. However, no further actions had been taken,” the report said.
The report was scathing about the quality of leadership at the council, saying there had been a ‘corporate failure’ to address the service’s weaknesses.
Managers and leaders had an over-optimistic view of services which was not supported by the evidence of declining provision, said the inspectorate. “An existing action plan failed to cover the majority of issues identified at this inspection, did not prioritise issues and did not place the experience of children at the centre of the necessary improvements,” the report said.
Two models of practice had been introduced in Stoke-on-Trent, the report said, neither of which were fully embedded, while the lack of supervision meant social workers identified the actions they needed to take and prioritised their own work.
“For some, this results in appropriate actions being taken, but for many this results in significant issues not being addressed,” said Ofsted. “This results in a lack of progress of plans and in children remaining in unsafe environments.”
Wholesale review required
Ofsted told the council to develop and implement a coherent framework to support the delivery of social work, and to improve management oversight, direction and challenge and the urgency and robustness of the child protection response.
It also said staffing capacity needed to be improved.
An interim director of children’s services, Mark Barratt, started on the first day of the inspection. Ofsted said he agreed with the findings, and that he had been in conversation with council members and other authorities to assist in “the extensive work needed for a wholesale review of service provision”.
Janine Bridges, Stoke-on-Trent’s cabinet member for education and economy, said the council has begun work on improvements and would seek to work with other authorities who have journeyed from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ to learn from their practices.
“We know what we need to do and have already started this work. A new children’s improvement board has been established, involving partners, which will include the police service, representatives from our schools and the Local Government Association. We are already working closely with Ofsted and the Department for Education to drive improvements for our children,” she added.