An independent children’s services company has made progress in its third borough, Windsor and Maidenhead, where Ofsted has delivered a ‘good’ verdict despite ongoing issues with social worker turnover.
Late in 2019, inspectors judged Achieving for Children (AfC) to be delivering ‘outstanding’ services in Kingston, which established the firm in 2014 in a joint improvement venture with neighbouring Richmond, which has long been rated ‘good’.
This week’s positive assessment at Windsor and Maidenhead, which joined AfC in 2017, will strengthen the company’s reputation for consistently enhancing services in multiple local authority areas. In December, Kingston and Richmond recommissioned AfC until 2026, with Windsor and Maidenhead contracted with the company until 2024.
Other children’s services trusts and similar ‘alternative delivery vehicles’, which have been set up voluntarily or via government-mandated takeover at struggling councils, operate in one area only.
Of those, only Doncaster Children’s Services Trust, rated ‘good’ two years ago, has made convincing improvements since assuming responsibility for children’s social care functions.
After its visit to Windsor and Maidenhead in January, Ofsted praised the effective governance arrangements established between the parent local authority and AfC, which benefited from a “consistent senior leadership team that has worked steadily to identify deficits [and] plan for and implement improvements”.
Inspectors rated the impact of leaders, along with with services for children in need of help and protection, as ‘good’, while finding there was “more to do to address legacy issues” in services for children in care, judged ‘requires improvement’.
‘Steep positive trajectory’
Services in Windsor and Maidenhead were rated ‘requires improvement’ across the board at its last full inspection in 2015, with the transfer to AfC taking place after subsequent deterioration, which was influenced by management and workforce instability.
While AfC’s leadership was now solid, Ofsted found staffing churn continued to negatively affect some children’s experiences, across all areas of service, preventing some from cementing relationships with social workers.
More on Achieving for Children
Inspectors did, however, note that the experience of longstanding staff and managers helped mitigate this in some teams, and commented favourably on workforce development strategies and on caseload volumes and the speed at which vacancies were filled.
Across the gamut of child protection services, Ofsted found a broadly positive picture, with an “impressive breadth” of early help interventions assisting families, who were appropriately referred onto statutory services when the need arose.
“Social workers in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) make sound appraisals of risk and need,” inspectors added. “They use histories and chronologies to sharpen their early analysis.”
Assessments and plans were mostly solid, Ofsted found – albeit with room for better consistency at child in need level – with social workers conveying “a strong understanding and knowledge of the children they work with”.
The local judiciary, meanwhile, reported a “steep positive trajectory” in relation to cases that proceeded to court.
Variable casework for children in care
For children in care, however, Ofsted found services were still much more patchy.
Most entered care appropriately and backed by comprehensive assessments, inspectors said, with timely family group conferencing supporting placements with extended family or other familiar adults. They also found children benefited from a “strong voice”, amplified by a “proactive and very well-run” children in care council, Kickback.
But record keeping in this area of the service was an issue, in part because of historical poor practice, with missing documentation meaning some children will struggle to understand their journey through the care system.
“Child permanence reports are variable in quality, and the completion of life-story work is not consistent,” Ofsted said. “The local authority has identified these as areas for development.”
Inspectors raised additional concerns over the quality of child in care reviews, and of some children’s overall care planning.
They also identified an inconsistent approach to how staff attempted to maintain contact with vulnerable care leavers.
Responding to Ofsted’s inspection report, Windsor and Maidenhead council’s lead member for children’s services, Stuart Carroll, said the borough had made “huge strides in improving services for children and young people”.
Carroll, who paid tribute to the dedication of children’s services, added: “The hard work does not stop here. We need to continue to build on what we have achieved and continue to strive to improve what we do for our children and young people.”
Meanwhile Kevin McDaniel, AfC’s director of children’s services for the borough, said he was “delighted” by the inspection result.
“The determination, hard work and ambition to improve – from our skilled and thoughtful practitioners right through to our senior leaders and partners – has led to this,” he said. “I am looking forward to continuing the rapid development of the services we offer to some of our most vulnerable residents as we work towards our ambition of achieving an outstanding rating in the future.”