Leeds council has said it is working to improve areas of social work practice after Ofsted reported a decline in standards following an ‘outstanding’ assessment three years ago.
The inspectorate said the authority’s response to some children in need of help and protection was “not as consistently strong as it was at the last inspection”, with delays in identifying and responding to some children in more complex circumstances.
It found, in a semi-virtual focused visit in July looking at front door services, that less than half of strategy meetings about children at potential risk involved the two other statutory safeguarding partners – the local chief officer of police and clinical commissioning group.
But the inspectorate found Leeds’ early help services had adapted well to meet demands during the coronavirus pandemic and staff reported feeling well supported and proud to work for the council.
Ofsted rated Leeds’ children’s services as ‘outstanding’ at its most recent full inspection in 2018, finding that effective recruitment and development had resulted in a stable and “loyal” workforce that delivered consistently good social work.
In 2016, the Department for Education selected the authority as a ‘partner in practice’, a high-performing council tasked with identifying good practice in children’s services and supporting others to improve. Recently, the department selected it as a sector-led improvement partner, a separate scheme for supporting other authorities to improve.
The DfE also provided funding, through its Strengthening families, supporting children programme, to spread Leeds’ family valued approach to other authorities. This involves working with families to prevent children going into care, particularly through significantly expanding family group conferences, including into domestic abuse cases. A 2017 evaluation found evidence of statistically significant reductions in children in care, child protection plans and numbers of children in need.
In the focused visit, Ofsted found social work practice and management oversight at the front door was “not as consistently strong as it was at the last inspection”.
It said managers “were not demonstrating that they have sufficient oversight of the progress and timeliness of children’s cases”.
Lack of analysis
In some domestic abuse cases, the regulator said there was not a “robust understanding or analysis of the previous history and incidents”. But it noted that Leeds has recently introduced a daily multi-agency meeting to strengthen their response to domestic abuse.
The regulator said children in Leeds were being seen on their own by their social worker on a regular basis throughout the pandemic, but some assessments were “overly descriptive”, with analysis not clearly focusing “on the impact of the identified risks on the child”.
Ofsted found the quality of children’s plans also varied, with some “too generic” and lacking in clear timescales, which it said made it difficult to monitor progress.
It found social workers reported feeling well supported by their managers but in some cases “supervision records were not reflective and were not assisting the worker to analyse their findings or provide an opportunity for learning”.
The regulator said the council’s audits “are not moderated and do not provide independent scrutiny of practice” and said they fail to “routinely identify areas for development and do not provide sufficient evidence to inform workforce development and drive forward practice”.
Overall, Ofsted said Leeds needed to improve its quality and consistency of assessments and children’s plans, management oversight and supervision and audits.
A spokesperson for Leeds said Ofsted’s findings were “not unexpected in the light of the pandemic”.
“Work is already underway in response to the findings and we are in conversation with staff and relevant partners to address the recommendations for improvement,” they said.
“Protecting the most vulnerable children in Leeds remains our number one priority. The strengths and areas for improvement outlined in the report will aid our Covid recovery and our continued work to ensure the best possible outcomes for all children and young people in the city.”
Council plans homes for children with complex needs
Ofsted also visited Lewisham council in July and found that its senior leadership team had “improved and strengthened services for children in care” following a ‘requires improvement’ assessment at the last full inspection in 2019.
It said the council’s children’s services leaders were appropriately addressing areas for development including a “consistent use of the social work practice model, to ensure that children in care are able to live in homes that meet their individual needs and have a positive impact on their lives”.
The inspectorate said the council’s children’s plans, pathway plans and review letters to children needed to include child-friendly language.
It said the council needed to improve its range of suitable homes for children, some of its case recordings, its consultation and notification to host authorities of children placed at a distance, and the timeliness of initial health assessments and personal education plan meetings.
A Lewisham council spokesperson said it was working to improve its reporting, engagement with children and residential care provision.
“We recognised that some of our reporting still needs further development and this is closely tied to our wider work on the quality of practice, including a more child friendly approach to report writing, recognising that in time many of our current children and young people will want to access their records,” they said.
“We have just established a new division called Families, Quality & Commissioning and this approach will be central to the work within the division including improved participation and engagement with young people.
“We are currently developing proposals for establishing our own residential provision within Lewisham.
“This will be particularly focused on accommodating some of the young people with more complex needs as we are increasingly finding it more difficult to identify appropriate accommodation for such young people.
“This is a problem affecting local authorities across the country, and we look to the government’s care review to address the poorly-functioning care market.”
Following a focused visit to Cumbria council, also in July, Ofsted said the quality of social work practice for children had improved at since the last full inspection in January 2018, when the inspectorate judged it as ‘requires improvement’.
, It said the council had made “steady progress” in its quality of assessments and in purposeful direct work with children, while management oversight had been strengthened.
It said it had embedded effective quality assurance, clear expectations in practice standards and a recognised social work model.
But it said the local authority had not sufficiently improved its planning nor the quality of social work for disabled children. It also said that “some social workers do not understand the complexities of relationships where domestic abuse is a feature”.
Ofsted also visited Hertfordshire County Council, most recently rated ‘good’, and praised its local safeguarding children partnership’s work in tackling harm outside the family and child exploitation. , It said this now meant practitioners were able to identify vulnerable children effectively and that children now received appropriate and timely interventions.
But it said supervision was “not always sufficiently focused on critically reflecting on children’s circumstances and ensuring that plans clearly identify the most significant issues they face”.
In addition, Ofsted visited Salford children’s services, which were rated ‘good’ in October 2018, and praised their “comprehensive local offer, effective strategic partnerships and a passionate and skilled workforce”, which it said provided positive outcomes for care leavers.
But the inspectorate said the council improve its use of audits and accessibility of written pathway plans for care leavers, including clarity of actions and contingency arrangements.