Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council plans to increase its children’s services budget by 12%, provide bonuses for social workers and overhaul front door services, to turn around performance following a damning Ofsted report.
BCP said its 15-point action plan would make “rapid” improvements for its children’s services in response to the Ofsted focused visit carried out in October 2020, which found “dissatisfaction” among some practitioners at working for the council, alongside widespread practice and management failings.
The plan is set to run until June 2021, while the council’s cabinet is expected to agree the budget boost at a meeting next week before it goes to the full council for sign-off later in the month.
‘Serious and widespread weaknesses’
The Ofsted visit to BCP found “serious and widespread weaknesses” in its children’s services, which left vulnerable children at risk of harm. During the visit, inspectors asked the council to review the cases of 50 children due to “serious concerns about their safety and well-being”.
Inspectors identified significant problems at the front door, with the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) accepting less than a quarter of referrals it received in the previous six months, resulting in high numbers of repeat referrals from agencies for families whose situations were deteriorating because of a lack of support.
Ofsted said this was because the MASH focused on whether the threshold for immediate social care involvement was met, rather than families’ longer-term needs. Inspectors also found that the MASH inappropriately referred children at high risk of harm to early help, without a thorough evaluation of whether they were being protected.
Ofsted also said that the “vast majority” of assessments were unfit for purpose, with many lacking focus on children’s experience and accepting parental self-reporting, resulting in children not receiving a service they would benefit from.
‘Presumption of support’
The action plan aims to create an integrated front door, encompassing the MASH, assessment teams and early help, with cases well triaged and passed to the right service, backed by an increase in budget. It promised to institute “a culture of help” with “a presumption of support” for children, alongside a “sea change in the quality of assessments”, with better use of evidence, analysis and focus on children’s experiences.
The report also said children in care and care leavers felt “let down” by BCP, with minimal contact with their social workers or personal assistants, leaving them feeling isolated and unsupported . The consideration of permanent placement options was found to often be absent and, when it did occur, to be “significantly delayed”.
Independent reviewing officers were also found to not be sufficiently carrying out their duties or drawing up robust plans and ensuring those are progressed.
Ofsted also said that looked-after children and care leavers. Inspectors also identified drift and delay in achieving permanence for children and independent reviewing officers not carrying out their duties sufficiently well.
More on children’s services performance
The action plan says there will be quarterly audits to ensure there are no avoidable delays in permanence planning, a greater range of placements to improve sufficiency, more involvement from children in care in decision-making and stronger scrutiny by IROs.
‘Over-reliance on agency staff’
Inspectors found the council had an “over-reliance” on short-term workers – including in managerial roles – with 55 agency staff in place at the time of the inspection, though this has since reduced to 33, equivalent to 17.8% of the workforce.
Some social workers expressed “dissatisfaction” about working for BCP and said there was too much churn in the permanent workforce, too many agency staff and too much reliance on newly qualified social workers for whom better support was needed.
One-to-one supervision was described as “perfunctory” and “lacking in challenge” as well as not helping social workers in professional development. Practitioners also cited a lack of reflective discussion, poor management direction and some stated caseloads remained too high.
To improve workforce stability and reduce agency staff numbers, BCP has introduced a recruitment and retention payment, which offers current and joining experienced social workers a one-off £3,000 payment (pro-rata) – excluding those in their assessed and supported year in employment.
The action plan said the council wanted to see “a continuous improvement in staff morale”, with workloads more manageable and social workers feeling that the “risks they hold are shared with managers and the organisation corporately”, which it would track through quarterly staff surveys. The quality and frequency of supervision, and the value that it adds to social workers, would also be tracked through audits.
The council is also extending its social work academy – currently for those on the ASYE – to experienced social workers, and is also running a development programme for team managers.
Elaine Redding, interim corporate director of children’s services (DCS) at BCP, told Community Care: “We recognise that we need to continue to invest in our staff and quite frankly, the staff do like it, they do, there’s been high take up and despite the challenges for Covid, good attendance to the training.”
The proposed 12% increase in funding, worth an extra £7.5m for the coming financial year, is designed to fund the action plan, while also helping the council deal with rising service costs, for example, for children’s placements.
The council, which was formed in April 2019 from the merger of the former Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils, is also being supported by former Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas, in a Department for Education-funded adviser role.
Redding, who was appointed last September, said the Ofsted report was an “uncomfortable read” but represented “a failure of leadership and management that is all fixable in a period of time”.
She added: “We’ve started the journey. We know we’ve got a marathon, but…we have started it and we are encouraged by where we’re going.”