New leaders praised for driving improvement but staff instability remains at ‘inadequate’ council

Ofsted highlights incoming directors' positive impact on social work morale and practice at Croydon council, but high vacancy and agency rates remain a challenge

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Ofsted has praised a new leadership team for driving improvements in social work at an ‘inadequate’ council, but says the authority is still struggling with workforce stability.

In their fifth monitoring visit to Croydon council since it was rated inadequate in 2017, inspectors identified marked improvements in the quality of practice in its assessment service, with all cases receiving an “appropriate outcome” and being overseen and signed-off by managers.

“This contrasts positively with previous practice and is a strong indicator of progress,” Ofsted said, following a visit that focused on the council’s assessment, disabled children’s and private fostering services.

The inspectorate also found that disabled children received an “appropriate and well-informed social work service” though services were poor for privately fostered children.

In identifying the drivers of improvement in Croydon, inspectors praised the council’s new senior leadership team, director of children’s services Robert Henderson, who took up post in November 2018, and Nick Pendry, director of early help and children’s social care, who joined the council in January this year.

Improved morale and visibility 

“In a relatively short period of time, the new executive director and the director of early help and children’s social care have improved morale, raised the visibility and impact of leaders and managers, started to embed a practice model and created conditions that are enabling steadily improving practice and outcomes for children,” the report said.

The report said the directors had “strong and clear understanding of practice in Croydon and are taking concerted action to address any barriers to progress”.

The council’s then managerial and political leadership were lambasted for the “corporate failure” of not understanding the “serious and widespread issues” across the service at the time of its ‘inadequate’ full inspection in summer 2017.

Children’s services were then run through a wider people directorate, also responsible for adult social care, but the services were separated into new departments in 2018 as part of moves to turn round children’s services. The then people director, Barbara Peacock, left before the restructure and children’s services were subsequently run by an interim director, Eleni Ioannides, before Henderson took up his post.

Workforce instability

Croydon’s 2017 inspection and previous monitoring reports all highlighted problems with workforce instability. The latest report found that, while senior management were prioritising recruitment and retention, it remained a challenge.

“Overall, the vacancy rate is 40%, but this reaches 80% in the assessment teams. Inspectors met skilled and committed locums, both new and longstanding, who are fulfilling these roles, but this remains an area of vulnerability,” the report said.

However, the visit identified some progress had been made on staffing, with eight out of nine head of service posts now permanently appointed to and a new group of service managers in place.

Assessment improvements

In relation to assessments, inspectors found that the service was sufficiently resourced and caseloads had significantly reduced since the first monitoring visit to an average of 18 children, with social workers being given enough time to visit children and properly understand their needs before being on duty again.

However, the report added that in some cases, assessments and plans had not considered the child’s history and practitioners were not “sufficiently confident” in their approaches to direct work.

Also, case records did not routinely include the rationale for managers’ decisions to step cases up or down.

Transfer of disabled children’s services

Services for disabled children were moved back to children’s social care from adults’ services earlier this year and have been reviewed by the council. Inspectors found the review to be “accurate and comprehensive” and also praised the council for new eligibility criteria for this group of children, which “responded to feedback from families”.

Inspectors found all children were visited frequently and practitioners were positively engaging with children and their families, and the majority of children received a service appropriate to their needs.

However, a small number of children had experienced “drift and delay” to their plans, they added.

Poor private fostering practice

The monitoring visit found that the council had not fulfilled its statutory responsibilities for children who were privately fostered and inspectors described this area of practice as poor.

Inspectors found visits to children and assessments had not been completed within the expected timescales and many children did not have plans in place to ensure their needs were met.

A small number of children were also in arrangements where no one was exercising parental responsibility, while another group had been incorrectly assessed as being privately fostered.

However, the report said senior managers were “aware of the deficits” and there were clear plans in place for improvements.

‘Considerable work to do’

Alisa Flemming, cabinet member for children, young people and learning at Croydon Council, said she was pleased Ofsted had noted “the drive and determination at all levels in the council” to improve services, and that inspectors felt the service was “becoming consistently better for children”.

She added: “It is also good to note their confidence in our assessment services, and how we not only safeguard children, but help to strengthen whole families through our early help service.

“However, most importantly we recognise there is still considerable work to do. We are already working to improve our service for children in private fostering as an absolute priority, and will keep up our pace until all children are receiving the excellent service we want them to have.”

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