Serious decision-making failures across many areas of children’s safeguarding have seen a council’s Ofsted grade reduced to ‘inadequate’.
An inspection of Luton council found children at risk of or exposed to harm received inconsistent services, with thresholds being unevenly applied from the front door onwards.
Child protection planning was patchy, and of variable effectiveness, with social workers sometimes slow to respond to cases in which concerns persisted or risks increased, leaving children in harmful situations.
Luton’s services to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds – some of whom were also left in “unsafe” circumstances – was another particular weakness.
“There is too much emphasis on diverting these children away from statutory intervention, without an assessment of their needs or of whether they would benefit from being looked after by the local authority,” Ofsted said.
Inspectors noted areas of improvement at the council, praising Luton’s early help team and response to children at risk of radicalisation. But while services for children in care and leadership retained the ‘requires improvement’ rating they obtained at the borough’s 2016 inspection, inspectors deemed the authority’s safeguarding failures as serious enough to downgrade the authority from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘inadequate’ overall.
The inspection, previously rated ‘requires improvement’, followed two recent focused visits by Ofsted that also warned of inconsistent practice, exacerbated by staffing problems that the latest report said were continuing, albeit with some signs of progress.
“Turnover is still high, but is beginning to reduce, and the local authority has been successful in working with some locum staff to accept permanent contracts,” inspectors said, noting Luton’s “comprehensive” training offer.
More recent Ofsted reports
Senior leaders at Luton had also increased the number of frontline managers in children’s services, inspectors found – one of a number of interlinked positive measures that included strengthening quality assurance systems.
“However, managers and child protection chairs are not consistently providing the right level of critical challenge and are not ensuring a more decisive response for some children, such as those in pre-proceedings,” inspectors said.
Some social workers simply remained too overloaded with work to practise effectively, they added.
Effective care planning
Within services for children in care, Ofsted found a brighter picture than on its most recent focused visit in 2019.
“Most care plans for children in care are clear, specific and measurable,” inspectors said. “Children are encouraged to participate in or contribute to their reviews, most of which are timely. Review minutes are comprehensive and detailed and are focused on the child’s experiences and progress.”
Unlike managers elsewhere in the service, independent reviewing officers (IROs) provided a “rigorous” layer of challenge and advocated effectively for children, Ofsted said.
But other issues remained, inspectors found. While the local authority was taking action to address a shortage of foster carers, this continued to cause problems, with “too many children living at a distance from family and friends”.
Children who went missing from care were also not well served, Ofsted said, with no routine system to enable them to talk to an independent person about why they had gone missing and risks they may have been exposed to.
‘We are truly sorry’
Mahmood Hussain, Luton’s portfolio holder for children’s services, said the council was “truly sorry that some children are not getting the right help at the right time” and would do “whatever it takes to put this right”.
Hussain noted that inspectors had picked up on areas such as early help and the response to radicalisation, where practice was strong. “[But] we fully accept that our overall performance is far from where it should be, and we will fix this,” he said.
A statement from the council said that since the inspection, action had been taken to address shortcomings, including by recruiting an extra seven social workers to overworked assessment teams.
“We have been supporting [staff] by increasing the investment into children’s services, however this report clearly states that better support and systems need to be put in place,” said Luton’s chief executive, Robin Porter.
“We have much more to do to ensure all of our most vulnerable children and young people receive the highest standards of protection and care, and that all children are in a position to thrive and feel safe,” Porter added. “We are absolutely committed and focussed on ensuring this happens.”