The government commissioner overseeing children’s social care improvements at an ‘inadequate’ local authority has warned that “significant doubts” remain as to whether it can do enough to keep hold of its services.
In a report evaluating Medway council’s children’s services, Eleanor Brazil granted a stay of execution, recommending that she monitor the situation for a further six months before reporting back to the Department for Education (DfE) on whether an alternative provider should take control of services.
The highly critical assessment of the Kent authority concluded that senior officers and political leaders had over the years “failed to create an environment in which good social work can be delivered”.
It noted that staffing instability from the top down had hampered efforts to improve while inflicting “constant pressure” on frontline workers, who were also operating within a team structure that was not fit for purpose.
Despite a number of external and internal reviews and inspections having taken place, the council had failed to consider their findings cumulatively, Brazil said.
“While there has been action to address individual issues, this has been too piecemeal,” she said. “If the council are to retain operational control of children’s services, they will need to prioritise politically, financially and managerially to deliver on [their] commitment to improvement.”
More on ‘inadequate’ councils’ improvement work
A revised direction issued to Medway council by the DfE said that Brazil would now support the implementation of a partnership to improve leadership at the authority and enable children’s services improvement to be prioritised at a strategic level.
In line with the commissioner’s report, the direction said that Brazil would report back in six and 12 months “to ensure the arrangement is having the impact needed to bring about long-term sustainable improvement”.
Sense of instability
The scope of Brazil’s report extended back seven years to 2013, when Medway council children’s services were first deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in two separate inspections.
While services were subsequently judged ‘requires improvement’ in 2015, Brazil noted that many of the recommendations made that year had not been acted upon by the time Ofsted returned for their next full inspection in 2019 – which once again found services to be ‘inadequate’.
These included calls for senior managers to take much greater oversight, in order to instil consistency, and for steps to be taken to minimise the disruption caused to children and families by workforce churn.
Brazil’s report said that efforts by Medway to improve had been compromised by a number of factors, including:
- Scrutiny committee members had conducted too few reviews of children’s services, leaving them overly reliant on officer reports – which in turn had painted a picture more rosy than the reality.
- Management posts from director level down were characterised by a sense of instability, with many filled by interim appointees and staffing structures and responsibilities subject to frequent change.
- A staffing structure based on small social work pods, responsible for all post-assessment social work including children in long-term care, put too much caseload pressure on staff, especially when vacancies arose.
- Areas of improvement identified by the council ahead of the full inspection in July 2019 focused too narrowly on process rather than practice.
‘Failure to bring findings together’
Since 2018, Brazil’s report said, there had been numerous reviews and inspections of Medway’s children’s services – many of which had identified issues relating to practice consistency, in areas including recruitment and retention, partnership working, and auditing and quality assurance.
These included several visits by Ofsted and other inspectorates in the form of a SEND inspection, a focused visit and a joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) looking at multi-agency responses to domestic abuse.
There had also been a review of safeguarding practice by the Local Government Association (LGA) and a ‘peer challenge’ by Hampshire council, in addition to internal work conducted by the children and young people’s scrutiny committee.
“It is clear that in the past 18 months to two years the council has sought advice on the challenges facing children’s services, and that is positive,” Brazil wrote.
“[But] there has been insufficient direct action taken in response to these findings at the time of them being shared,” she added. “The associated failure to bring all the findings together in a co-ordinated way, with clear priorities and coherent actions, has undoubtedly reduced the potential impact of changes made.”
Among a list of areas in need of urgent change, Brazil said that an overarching model of social work practice needed to be more consistently instilled, and that early help should be brought into closer co-ordination with children’s social care.
Medway’s improvement board “must ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach to improvement, and that there is sufficient pace in delivering change,” the report said.
‘Committed to transforming the service’
Medway’s lead member for children’s services, Josie Iles, said the council fully accepted Brazil’s findings.
“Our main focus is ensuring sustainable improvements are made quickly so Medway’s children in need of our help and protection receive the service they deserve,” she said. “We recognise the importance of having a clear delivery strategy setting out priorities and direction through which we can achieve positive changes in the lives of Medway’s vulnerable children and young people.”
Iles added that, as noted in the report, Medway was recruiting permanently to two assistant director posts, and said that extra social workers were being brought on board to reduce caseloads. A staff group had been set up to ensure practitioners’ input into the council’s improvement board and wider plans for children’s services, she said.
“We welcome the recommendation to work with a leadership improvement partner and already have a number of strong partnerships in place with other local authorities to adopt best practice and strengthen the quality of our services,” Iles said. “There is still much to be done but we are fully committed to transforming the service we provide for children and young people in need of our help and protection, as well as for children in our care.”