A London borough’s children’s services have kept a ‘requires improvement’ grade after Ofsted found improvements were being undercut by patchy social work oversight by managers and areas of poor practice.
In a report published yesterday, inspectors found that “strong and effective” leadership was having a noticeable positive impact on social work at Barking and Dagenham council, with senior managers having identified “safeguarding deficits” and taken steps to address them.
“Decisive action to address concerns, reconfigure teams, and rigorous performance management are making a discernible difference,” Ofsted said. “The pace of change has accelerated dramatically in the last six months.”
Nonetheless, inspectors found practice inconsistencies across a number of service areas, as well as specific weaknesses, especially around ensuring children’s health needs are met.
‘Knowledgable and confident social workers’
Within Barking and Dagenham’s services for children in need of help and protection, Ofsted’s report recorded a number of positive points, with the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) being one area singled out for praise.
“Actions taken by highly visible and appropriately challenging senior managers have resulted in stronger corporate collaboration,” Ofsted said. “Joint work with the ‘no recourse to public funds team’, social housing providers, adults’ services and the children’s assessment team has resulted in more rapid action to identify and meet children’s needs.”
The effectiveness of the MASH had been augmented by a new vulnerable adolescent and youth offending service, sited adjacently to it, inspectors added.
Barking and Dagenham’s work overall with adolescents and children was found to be a strength, with “knowledgable and confident” social workers undertaking skilful practice to build relationships.
More generally, Ofsted said: “In many cases, social workers have strong relationships with children. They see them regularly and alone, according to assessed needs, understand their lived experiences and take action to make changes that help and protect [them] and their families.”
Variable management quality
However, despite performance management having been treated as a priority at the council, inspectors found areas of uneven quality, starting with Barking and Dagenham’s early help services.
“Early help services are insufficiently targeted or coordinated with partners to meet the needs of specific groups of children,” inspectors found, adding that it was hard for managers to know whether children were receiving interventions that made a difference.
The quality, management oversight and impact of early help services all needed to improve, Ofsted said.
High caseloads and variable management quality in assessment teams also meant some children were not receiving help quickly enough, while others had been “subject of multiple and ineffective assessments and interventions, sometimes over many years”.
Similar issues were noted within services for children and care and care leavers, with inspectors observing some instances of children being left in neglectful circumstances too long, while special guardianship assessments were found to be “highly variable”.
‘Significant’ health concerns
Ofsted also flagged a series of concerns around how looked-after children’s health needs were being met.
Timeliness of initial health assessments was found to be very poor, meaning immediate priorities were not being identified, while access to CAMHS for children in care was described as “not sufficient”.
Health arrangements for care leavers were also found to be “weak” and a “significant concern”.
“Health histories for young people are not available,” inspectors said. “Care leavers are not provided with a health passport or with specific targeted support to address mental health or emotional concerns.”
Among a series of recommendations, Ofsted said Barking and Dagenham council must improve its strategic relationship with health services in order to address the concerns.
‘We need to do more’
A council spokesperson said leaders at the authority were encouraged that Ofsted had observed strong progress in a number of areas, leaving Barking and Dagenham on a trajectory to good.
“We are absolutely committed to making improvements and as leaders have high aspirations and determined to do the right thing for our children and their families,” the spokesperson said. “However, although Ofsted highlighted the fact that we have rightly prioritised services for children most at risk, we recognise the need to do more to be consistently good or better.”
“The council is already addressing all of the issues raised as a matter of priority,” the spokesperson added. “The report has shown the extent of work that is needed, and while there is more to do, much of the work is already under way.”