Improvements in how an ‘inadequate’ children’s services responds to cases of neglect are taking place too slowly, Ofsted has warned in a letter following a monitoring visit.
Poor social work practice at Blackpool council that left children in situations of chronic neglect was a key factor in the ‘inadequate’ verdict handed by inspectors to the seaside borough in 2019.
A year on, Ofsted found that the local authority’s neglect strategy had been relaunched, but had still to be fully embedded.
“It is concerning that the response and recognition of neglect for some cases continue to be too slow, as was the case at the time of the inspection,” the monitoring visit letter said.
Inspectors added that ongoing staffing problems, patchy management oversight and delays implementing a new practice model were hindering progress across children in need and child protection teams. This was despite Blackpool’s intensive work with three authorities in the government’s Partners in Practice scheme, under which high-performing councils support peer authorities.
Last July, Blackpool avoided seeing its children’s services set on the path towards being turned over to an ‘alternative delivery vehicle’ such as an independent trust.
A commissioner appointed by the government – Helen Lincoln, the director for children and families at Essex council – said in a report that the council had “responded robustly” to its disastrous inspection in late 2018.
Social workers talked of “considerable improvements” at the council, and Lincoln warned that the prospect of a handover of services could disrupt the pace of change.
In its latest monitoring visit, Ofsted recorded a number of positive developments, with Blackpool still “moving in the right direction”.
The multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) was mostly found to be functioning well, with thresholds applied correctly and partnership working evident.
But in a minority of cases, neglect had not been recognised or responded to robustly prior to a strategy discussion, inspectors said.
‘Pressure on the whole service’
“The decision to initiate a child protection investigation took too long in some cases,” the monitoring visit letter said.
“Information from partner agencies was not always well recorded within the section 47 decision-making, and this impacts on the quality of planning to safeguard children.”
The quality of assessments and plans also remained variable – something the authority had recognised but not taken significant action on – Ofsted added.
Elsewhere, inspectors recorded positive feedback from social workers – including around support from supervisors – and observed that Blackpool’s workforce development strategy had been enhanced.
But gaps remained in terms of staffing, the visit letter said. “This places pressure on the whole service, which is continually coping with high levels of demand at the front door,” Ofsted said. “It also has a detrimental impact on children, who continue to experience changes of social worker.”
Focused visits find ups and downs at four councils
In Manchester, which has just been rocked by the publication of a scathing review into historic failures by the police, social workers and other professionals to protect girls from sexual exploitation, inspectors said children’s services now benefited from “a strong and established leadership team supported by political and corporate leaders”.
Ofsted said that leaders were aware of the continuing need to strengthen practice in some areas, including analysis of information by social workers, and record-keeping.
The inspectorate also praised bosses in Haringey for their improvements to services, with a “culture of professional curiosity and child-centred practice” now apparent in the MASH. But Ofsted said recruitment and retention was still posing problems, including around the quality of oversight, and that more work needed to be done to support vulnerable adolescents.
Ofsted also found ongoing staffing issues were exacerbating patchy practice at Herefordshire, which has long struggled to fill posts in part because of its rural location. “The local authority has made little progress in improving the quality of practice for children in need and those subject to a child protection plan since the last inspection,” the focused visit letter said.
In Dudley, meanwhile, a focused visit spotlighting assessments and decision-making found that the quality of social work had deteriorated since inspectors last visited. Ofsted said the recently installed leadership team at the West Midlands authority – which has previously been at risk of being stripped of its children’s services – accepted its criticisms and “responded with immediate mitigating action” where appropriate.
The cases of all children with disabilities will now be reviewed, the focused visit letter said.