Children in South Gloucestershire are being “left in situations of unassessed risk”, with some as a result remaining in circumstances where they are known to be at risk of significant harm, Ofsted has warned.
Inspectors conducting a focused visit to the local authority’s children’s services front door in November found that since a full inspection during 2019 – which rated services ‘requires improvement’ – some areas of practice had deteriorated.
They said that while senior leaders had been aware of the need to improve front-door services, improvements implemented had not been sustained, in part because of pressures relating to the pandemic and a high turnover of social workers.
Ofsted called on the council to urgently address the effectiveness and timeliness of risk-assessments, and actions taken to address identified risks to children. The regulator also warned that senior leaders must put in place improvements to social work practice at the front door.
‘The quality of child-protection enquiries are weak’
While South Gloucestershire had recently prioritised speeding up decision-making by the access team responsible for handling new referrals, Ofsted said recorded improvements did not represent the reality experienced by many children.
“When additional information is required to inform initial decision-making about contacts and this is taking longer than the 24 hours expected by statutory guidance, some contacts are closed while further information is gathered,” inspectors said. “A subsequent new contact is then opened once the information is gained [which] leads to unnecessary delay for children.”
Ofsted found thresholds were not being consistently understood or applied either by the access team or the response team, which handles child protection enquiries, leading to “disagreements and escalations”. Despite adequate processes being in place to deal with transfers between early help and statutory services, they found “weak and over-optimistic” social work assessments meant children were being stepped down too soon and then subsequently having to be stepped back up.
“Records of decisions for children who do not meet the threshold for a referral to children’s social care are not kept [following daily domestic incident meetings],” the focused visit report said. “This means there is no formal record in children’s social care that is available to support future decision-making.”
More recent Ofsted reports
Inspectors also noted delays in child protection strategy meetings and in some cases first visits to children – including those known to be at risk of significant harm.
“Overall, the timeliness and quality of child-protection enquiries are weak,” they said, with some children’s records confusing. Senior leaders’ oversight was at time of the visit judged to be inadequate to improve the situation.
“The quality assurance of social work practice and its impact for children is weak [and] the quality of audits is variable,” Ofsted said. “Many are overly descriptive and lack an evaluation of practice and its impact for children.”
‘We have to improve our services significantly and swiftly’
Despite the weaknesses identified, Ofsted noted an “appropriate focus” on tackling high caseloads, in part by investment to tackle ongoing recruitment and retention difficulties. Inspectors said staff were generally optimistic and felt well-supervised, although records of this were not effectively kept.
Samuel Bromiley, South Gloucestershire’s cabinet member for children and young people, said he accepted the report “shows we are not doing well enough to support those children, young people and their families who need us the most”.
He added: “It does not blame the dedicated staff who do an incredibly difficult job with real commitment and empathy, but it is clear that we must take collective responsibility for the fact that we have to improve our services significantly and swiftly.”
Bromiley noted that prior to Ofsted’s visit the council had announced a four-year, £10m investment into its service and workforce “to enable us to meet the challenges we know we face” but admitted these needed more than just money.
“We will continue to take steps to change the way we work to ensure that children and families who are at risk can be seen and supported quickly and receive the services they need to keep them safe and well,” he said.
Positive response to Covid pressures in Sheffield
Meanwhile a focused visit carried out to Sheffield council’s front door, also during November, made mostly positive findings despite the authority having been “stretched” by the pandemic.
“Decision-making and follow-up action are timely and of an appropriate quality,” Ofsted said, adding that record-keeping, information sharing and ensuring that children’s voices were sought were all areas that could be improved.
Inspectors found the council had ensured its front door was “well resourced to ensure that there is a robust response to meet the immediate needs of children and families”.
Most assessments were high quality, with clear decision-making around child protection issues and meetings convened quickly to ensure action being taken to safeguard children.
“For the very small number of children who have come into care in an emergency, there has been a swift and appropriate response by children’s social care, and follow-up assessment and planning work has been timely,” inspectors said. They added that managers had a strong grasp of their services’ strengths and weaknesses and a realistic perspective on “what needs to be done” despite evident extra pressure as a result of Covid-19.