Ofsted has found varying rates of improvement at five ‘inadequate’ local authorities and strongly praised two good-rated councils, following visits last month.
Among the inadequate-rated councils, the inspectorate particularly highlighted improvements at Surrey and Newham, found disabled children’s services had recovered since a visit last year West Sussex, and said progress was “modest but fragile” at Medway.
At Bradford council, which carries the same rating, it found ’a slow pace of change’ though with signs of improvement in some areas. Meanwhile, ‘good’ authorities Bromley and Gateshead continued to impress the inspectorate.
Support for care leavers improving
Ofsted commended Surrey council, rated inadequate in 2018, for how well its personal advisers (PAs) supported young people after they left care through “skilled and sensitive work”.
It said PAs’ workloads were manageable and they worked hard to maintain contact and trusting relationships, enabling “strong progress” in many important areas of care leavers’ lives and helping them to become independent young adults.
Young people who are unaccompanied asylum seekers receive specialist and skilled support, it said.
But Ofsted said that the council had failed to provide some young people with sufficient support and advice due to high sickness absence and turnover of PAs.
Clare Curran, the council’s cabinet member for children and families, said: “There is always more to do, and we are actively recruiting more permanent employees, but I am encouraged that this visit from Ofsted illustrates the positive improvement journey across our services for our children, young people and families.”
Care planning gets better
At Newham council, rated inadequate in 2019, Ofsted noted that the council’s services for children in care and care leavers were improving.
The inspectorate praised the authority’s care planning, with greater consideration of children’s voices and more impetus towards permanence.
It also congratulated the authority for making improvements despite the “severe and ongoing impact” of the Covid-19 pandemic in the east London borough.
But it said: “There is still more work to do to ensure that children and young people’s needs are consistently met.
“Leaders have a clear understanding of the areas where improvement is necessary and have robust and realistic plans to address them.”
Sarah Ruiz, lead member for education and children’s social care, said: “I am really encouraged by the findings made by the inspectors and I am pleased they have acknowledged the significant improvements made to the service which are already making a real difference to our children and young people in the borough.
“Our aim is to deliver a first-class service to our young people and this report shows we are on the right track to achieve that. I look forward to welcoming the inspectors back next year so we can show how we have improved even further following their recommendations.”
Support for disabled children improving
At its visit to West Sussex council, also rated inadequate in 2019, Ofsted reported that the support it provided to disabled children had improved since a critical focused assurance visit in October 2020.
That visit had found that “too few disabled children [received] an effective service”, with many assessments out of date and current needs unassessed.
In its latest report, Ofsted said senior managers had “worked purposefully to deliver improvements” for disabled children, with most having up-to-date assessments giving a clear understanding of their needs, and child-centred plans. It also found stronger management oversight of disabled children’s services, with more regular supervision for staff.
But it said these improvements remained “too variable”, including in relation to direct work with children and the quality and purpose of visits, many of which remained adult-focused. Some practice continued to be ineffective.
A spokesperson for the council said: “We are proud of the improvements that have been made over the past year to improve services for our children and young people with disabilities, which has been recognised in our latest Ofsted monitoring visit report.
“Whilst we have a lot of work still to do, we have stable foundations from which we will continue our improvement journey.”
Modest but fragile progress
Ofsted reported that Medway council in Kent, rated inadequate in 2019, had made “modest but fragile progress” since then, with its leadership “visibly determined to ensure that practice changes are embedded”.
It found that most social workers were able to establish positive relationships with children and knew them well, while improved safety planning was reducing the risk children entered care in an emergency.
“However, most children in Medway who require support are not yet receiving a good enough service,” the report said.
“Their progress is held back by wide-ranging inconsistencies in the quality and impact of assessments, plans, interventions and management oversight and supervision.” It particularly highlighted the need to improve responses to children living with chronic neglect.
Inspectors also said that recent improvements in the stability of the workforce were being put at risk by an uptick in turnover, while caseloads, though within the authority’s target limit for most practitioners, were also starting to rise. However, staff said they felt supported and valued the training opportunities they received.
Josie Iles, Medway’s portfolio holder for children’s services, welcomed the progress noted by Ofsted and the fact staff felt supported.
“We recognise that there is still a long way to go in our improvement journey. Ofsted’s letter points out a number of areas for further improvement but they are confident that we have identified the critical areas for improvement that we will be focusing on in the coming months.”
Slow pace of change
Ofsted also visited Bradford council for the sixth time since it judged the authority’s children’s services to be ‘inadequate’ in 2018.
Its report last week followed the resignation of Mark Douglas as the council’s director of children’s services earlier this month, after being in the role for two years. It also came in the wake of damning inspection reports on two of Bradford’s children’s homes, leading Ofsted to suspend one of them.
The Department for Education appointed a commissioner to work with Bradford council’s children’s services in August, after Ofsted reported a “slow pace” of improvement since its inadequate rating.
Former Leeds director of children’s services Steve Walker will determine, by January 2022, whether Bradford should retain control of its children’s services.
The inspectorate’s latest report found improvements in the quality and frequency of children’s review meetings, said life-story workwas taking place with more children, that children were helped to achieve permanence through adoption and that it had introduced permanence tracking.
But it said: “There is still much more to do to improve the consistency of practice and address continuing weaknesses in several key areas.”
These included improvements needed to the standard of care in residential services, commissioning of placements and corporate parenting.
Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford Council, said: “We are absolutely committed to improving children’s services across the district and ensuring that we offer the best services possible to our children and families.
“While welcoming the recognition from Ofsted that things have got better in some areas it is critical that every effort continues to be made to tackle the weaknesses they have identified.
“I will be seeking assurances from the management team that the substantial investment the council has made in the service results in the necessary improvements over the coming weeks and months.”
Strong praise for North East authority
Meanwhile, in a report today, Ofsted strongly praised good-rated Gateshead, following a visit that focused on services at the front door.
Inspectors said the North East authority’s “highly skilled, committed and caring social workers” and managers provided “sensitive, innovative, child-centred help and protection” to children.
Most assessments were “comprehensive and analytical”, clearly reflecting the child’s voice and experiences, while there was a “resolute focus” on understanding the impact of domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental ill-health and neglect.
This was backed up by “rigorous” performance management and “strong, effective and ambitious senior leadership” under director of children’s services Caroline O’Neill.
However, Ofsted found the quality and impact of supervision needed to improve – with managers’ recording lacking clarity and analysis of what needed to happen next – as did contingency planning for children, which was currently “limited”.
Ambitious and determined leadership
Ofsted also praised Bromley council’s children’s services’ leadership team for ensuring that children’s needs were “championed and embedded in the wider council”.
It said the south east London authority, rated good in 2018, was supported by a “stable and skilled workforce”.
“Ambitious and determined leadership ensures that services continue to strengthen so there is a positive experience for children in care,” it said.
“The local authority continues on a positive trajectory of improvement supported by additional investment and resourcing.”
But it said that data for return home interviews needed to improve to accurately reflect the work undertaken with children.
Kate Lymer, deputy leader of the council, said: “We will continue to push towards excellence, secure in the knowledge that our determined work is recognised by Ofsted and their finding from this focused visit will be taken into account when they plan their next inspection visit to Bromley.”