Ofsted has observed tentative improvements at a children’s services trust, but concluded that senior managers and partner organisations were still labouring under a “false impression” of practice quality because of poor quality assurance.
In their third monitoring visit to Together for Children in Sunderland since children’s services there were judged ‘inadequate’ for the second time in 2018, inspectors said there had been “significant work” and investment to improve the organisation’s infrastructure.
Senior management posts were fully staffed for the first time since 2015, and the recruitment of more permanent social workers had reduced agency staffing, the watchdog found, while frontline workers reported positive changes and the feeling of working in a “highly supportive environment”.
But Ofsted’s visit, which focused on the social work response to children under consideration for court action due to the risk of significant harm to them, found the experience for many remained inconsistent.
Improved decision making on care proceedings
Inspectors found that a new panel made up of senior managers was beginning to improve decision making among social workers as to whether to initiate the public law outline and care proceedings.
“For some children, this has resulted in timely actions being taken to ensure that they are protected,” they said. “However, this is not consistent.”
Inspectors “saw delays in children’s cases coming to that panel, subsequent actions not then being taken in a timely manner, and changes being made to authorised plans without any further decision-making meetings”.
These issues were exacerbated by an overstretched legal team, ongoing social worker changes and generally poor oversight, meaning some cases continued to drift. In general, there was too little focus on early permanence planning for some children, inspectors said.
Inspectors were also troubled by a lack of evidence that parents had given consent in some cases where children had been accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act.
Despite continued inconsistencies, Ofsted found signs pointing to a more positive future, such as the recruitment of family support workers to support social workers in carrying out non-statutory tasks.
Short-term social work staffing was reducing, with caseloads becoming more manageable in general, and partnership working improving, the monitoring visit report said.
Most practitioners were receiving monthly supervision, Ofsted observed, although some had experienced gaps of several months, while some supervision sessions failed to address practice weaknesses and were insufficiently specific about actions to take in cases.
However, recently recruited social workers gave a positive assessment of the trust as a place to work.
“Staff know the children well and spoke with enthusiasm about their work,” Ofsted said. “They spoke about the increased opportunities to work directly with children and parents and how they are supported to utilise many and varied social work tools to help improve children’s lives.”
‘Enormous difference’ from newfound stability
Jill Colbert, the director of children’s services for Sunderland and chief executive at Together for Children, told Community Care that while challenges persisted the organisation’s newfound stability was making an “enormous difference” to its ability to proceed with improvement work.
“Quality assurance and our audit capacity have always been limited – we’ve been working with Doncaster children’s services trust, our partner in practice, and they have been helping us to revise our audit framework,” she said.
Colbert said that Together for Children’s focus on enabling part-time and flexible working patterns had been a key influence on the trust managing to stabilise its frontline workforce, whose agency rate had reduced to 10%.
She added that the issues Ofsted had recorded around section 20 of the Children Act were more due to inconsistent recording – which was being addressed – rather than failures on social workers’ part to seek parental consent.
“Maintaining the pace of improvement is the challenge for us, but with a permanent senior management team and stabilised workforce, we feel in a much better position to achieve change,” Colbert said.
“We are confident that what we have in hand is a process to grip [legacy] cases and ensure managers have oversight, and have taken action where things not as should have been,” she said.