‘Very poor quality’ permanence planning sees inspectors judge council ‘inadequate’

St Helens working to improve services but problems greater than leaders realised, and social work practice too variable, Ofsted says

Image of magnifying glass, notebook and keyboard (credit: peterschreiber.media / Adobe Stock)
(credit: peterschreiber.media / Adobe Stock)

A council has been branded ‘inadequate’ after Ofsted inspectors found serious failures in services for children in care, with senior leaders “unaware of the extent of the problem”.

In its report, the inspectorate said children’s services in St Helens had declined since its last full inspection in 2014, with permanence planning by both social workers and managers described as being of “very poor quality”.

“The full range of permanence options, including special guardianship and adoption, is not routinely considered in a timely way, and sometimes is not considered at all,” inspectors said. “This means children are subject to unnecessary statutory involvement in long-term fostering arrangements for too long.”

Services for children on the edge of care – which the council is investing in improving – were found to be underdeveloped and inconsistent. Children returning to their families were also poorly served, with inspectors saying there was “no evidence” of support being put in place to counter issues that led to them being taken into care in the first place.

Meanwhile special guardianship options were “not being explored proactively with families when it is clearly in the best interests of children to do so”, Ofsted found.

‘Cultural barriers to practice improvement’

Ofsted’s inspection of St Helens, in late September and early October, came after a summer 2018 focused visit discovered significant weaknesses across the council’s children’s services, with thresholds poorly understood and some children being left in harmful conditions.

St Helens’ incoming director of children’s services, Sarah O’Brien, had notified Ofsted of “serious shortfalls in practice” found during her first weeks in the role, the focused visit letter noted.

The new inspection report said that O’Brien had been “driving the improvement plan forward” and had established a new senior leadership team, which had “begun to ensure that the right  trajectory for improvement is in place”. It rated the impact of senior leaders as ‘requires improvement’ rather than ‘inadequate’.

Inspectors said the council understood the urgency of making changes and had put up money with which to do so, and to invest in extra social work capacity. Solid progress had been in some areas, such as the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and the previously “in crisis” children with disabilities team, Ofsted acknowledged.

“But many developments are not yet fully in place or are too new to have made any significant impact,” the inspection report said. “Considerable cultural barriers to practice improvement remain, particularly in relation to embedding effective management oversight at all levels to challenge the too variable standards of social work practice.”

Services for help and protection were judged to be in better condition than those for looked-after children, and accordingly were also rated ‘requires improvement’.

But while no children were found to be at risk of immediate harm, inspectors identified drift and delay around planning within duty, assessment and child protection teams, with some children left in situations of unassisted risk. A minority of children experienced too many changes of social worker because of organisational restructures, turnover and sickness, Ofsted added.

‘We will continue to act with urgency’

Responding to the report, St Helens’ DCS, O’Brien, said she was glad Ofsted had acknowledged areas of improvement, but was disappointed they had “clearly not been fast enough in some parts of the service”.

“We knew from the findings of the report in July 2018 that there was much work to do in order to make the necessary changes to the department and that this process would need both additional investment and time to improve,” O’Brien said.

“Our main area for improvement must now focus on the need for better permanence planning for looked-after children, to ensure all children know what their long term plan is, so that they feel safe and secure about their future,” she added. “I want this for all our children and to make our support for vulnerable children and young people as good as it can be.”

St Helens council leader David Baines added that the authority would “continue to act with urgency on the recommendations made by Ofsted”.

“We are putting an extra £8m per year into better supporting foster families, increasing the numbers of social workers and improving safeguarding and edge of care services,” Baines said. “We have already made available an additional £7m in 2019-20 and allocated an additional £9m for 2020-21 in recognition of demographic pressures facing the service and rising costs.

“The next step will now be to continue working with our improvement board to develop a detailed action plan to address the recommendations made,” he added.

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