Croydon council has jumped from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ after Ofsted inspectors hailed “dramatic” improvements wrought by children’s services bosses brought in during late 2018.
The outer-London borough was harshly criticised in September 2017 when inspectors branded it ‘inadequate’ due to children being left at risk of significant harm, a situation fuelled by staffing churn and poor oversight by managers.
But after a series of increasingly encouraging monitoring visits, a full inspection in February graded Croydon ‘good’ in all areas except for services for children in care, which still ‘require improvement’.
“The chief executive, political leaders, strategic and corporate leaders have all worked together to ensure that services for children and families are a priority,” Ofsted said.
Appointing a “skilled and experienced” director of children’s services (DCS) and other senior managers had enabled the development of services focused on the needs of children and families, the inspection report added.
The culture of the organisation was changing for the better, with a much-improved approach to multi-agency working and a “total transformation” of practice oversight, inspectors found.
Those two areas of progress had achieved particular impact at the front door and in assessment teams, meaning children quickly achieved appropriate support when referred in.
‘Strong support and challenge’
Croydon’s DCS, Rob Henderson, who began his role in December 2018, told Community Care the turnaround had been facilitated by an environment of “strong support and challenge”, which was aided by improvement partner Camden council.
“We saw a number of senior and other managers leave because we didn’t feel they could deliver the quality we needed,” he said. “We can now say pretty confidently that we have senior and frontline management teams that know what good looks like and have a cultural belief in the values we have.”
“That has been significant and systematic, and has involved determination, focus, taking some risks and sticking firmly to our principles in a marketplace where recruitment and retention is incredibly challenging,” Henderson added.
Efforts to stem workforce turnover, which had previously been a chronic issue in Croydon, as it is for many outer-London boroughs, were one area praised by Ofsted.
Henderson said that while the permanent social worker vacancy rate remained above one third, the council was managing to stick to a policy of not taking on agency workers who were not up to the job.
“We have attracted good managers, they have brought social workers with them and we have made decisions to hold vacancies where necessary,” he said.
Henderson added that Croydon, as well as improving its recruitment and retention package, had, as part of its systemic practice model, been investing in family safeguarding, bringing in adult social workers, as well as specialist domestic abuse workers, into its child protection teams.
Investment in adolescents
Adding specialist practitioners has also formed part of Croydon’s investment in services for adolescents, which were the subject of a critical 2019 thematic review into the experiences of 60 young people. Ofsted said the investment in understanding the risks faced by adolescents was “very evident”.
“We’ve gone from one to three adolescent teams, which have youth workers in, and the edge-of-care service tries to support families to keep young people at home,” Henderson said. “We’ve got family therapists linked into those teams and work closely with youth offending services and increasingly with the police.”
The 2019 thematic review found children were not supported early enough, with practitioners commenting that there was no framework in place to address risks in the community.
But Ofsted said a “broad range of good-quality universal and targeted [early help] services” was now available, which interfaced well with statutory social care.
“Children at risk of exploitation benefit from effective multi-agency information-sharing,” inspectors found. Action plans developed through a new multi-agency complex adolescents panel were increasingly comprehensive and well targeted, they added, though risk assessments were not yet being consistently used.
Multi-agency work across Croydon had in general been “reinvigorated”, Ofsted said in its report.
“Representatives from Cafcass, the local judiciary and schools have noted better communication and improved practice since the last inspection, resulting in more timely improvements to children’s experiences and progress,” it said.
Henderson acknowledged that work with local police, health services and the wider community had become “fractured” over time and that some distrust was justifiable due to past unacceptable practice standards.
He said an ongoing shift from a centralised to locality-based children’s services model, with early help integrated at each site, was now changing things.
“In terms of the broader partnership, our ambition in the localities is to have an integrated health and social care model,” Henderson said. “We are working to integrate health visitors, school nursing, community paediatrics and mental health, to work as one service for the community, reducing duplication and targeting need.”
With the inspection out of the way, Henderson said Croydon’s focus would be on addressing Ofsted’s issues with services for children in care. Inspectors found the quality of care planning was still too variable, and that services for care leavers – including around housing and helping young people prepare for independence – needed to be better.
“Our children looked-after and leaving care number about 1,600 – one of the highest numbers in the country,” Henderson said, adding that one-third of children in care and two-thirds of care leavers were unaccompanied asylum-seekers. “We want those children to have the highest outcomes and the mantra is, we work with them as if they are our own.”