Needs of children ‘secondary’ to parents’ in some cases, Ofsted finds during council visit

Experiences of most children in need in North Somerset not given sufficient priority, with some facing “repeated patterns of harm”, say inspectors

Credit: North Somerset council

The experiences of most children in need are not given sufficient priority by North Somerset Council, while those of some are “secondary” to their parents’, Ofsted has warned.

While inspectors found no children at risk of immediate harm, they said some were experiencing “repeated patterns of harm” because of the council’s failure to escalate cases promptly to pre-proceedings when their situations did not improve.

At a visit in December, Ofsted said children experienced repeated, and sometimes short-term, child protection plans. This was because practitioners often focused on “reoccurring incidents and parents’ needs rather than a thorough analysis and understanding of the experiences and histories of children, and the detrimental impact on their lives of harmful parental behaviours”.

‘Little progress’

Overall, Ofsted found “little progress” in the quality of social work practice for children in need of help and protection since it rated North Somerset’s children’s services as ‘requires improvement’ in March 2020.

The inspectorate said children in need and child protection plans were too wide ranging and lacked timescales and contingency plans to ensure progress.

It found supervision was regular but sometimes without “a clear sense of direction”, and said actions were not consistently identified or helping to deliver timely progress for children.

Inspectors said North Somerset’s quality assurance process was “weak” and did not help to improve social work practice.

They reported that audits were “overly focused on compliance” with recording practices and did not consider the impact of social work activities and outcomes.

“Fundamentally, audits do not tell senior leaders about the child’s lived experiences or evaluate the effectiveness of how social workers meet children’s needs,” the report said.

Changes to leadership disrupt improvements

Ofsted’s report said “recent and significant changes” to the leadership team since the last inspection, including a restructure of senior managers and services, and a key member of staff being absent through sickness, had “slowed the pace of improving social work practice”.

It is unclear what this refers to but the council split its children’s and adults’ services into separate directorates in late 2020, with Sheila Smith reverting to being director of children’s services having previously overseen both areas as director of people and communities.

More positively, inspectors reported that the workforce was generally stable with a low use of agency staff and low caseloads.

A spokesperson for the council said it agreed with the areas for improvement Ofsted identified but that it was “reassured that the inspectors have recognised that no children are immediately at risk of harm”.

“One of the key elements of our budget in the year ahead is backing our children and young people,” they said.

“We are making good progress and have confidence in our plans and our people as we continue on our journey to be good.”

‘Inadequate’ authority invests in workforce

Meanwhile, Ofsted found investment in the workforce had cut social workers’ caseloads at Luton council, while a “well-considered workforce strategy” for practitioners at all levels was beginning to improve staffing stability.

The findings came in its fourth visit since rating the authority as inadequate in February 2020. Then, inspectors found caseloads were too high in some teams and turnover in assessment teams prevented children from forming meaningful relationships with practitioners and were contributing to delays in tackling risk.

Despite the workforce improvements, the inspectorate said turnover was still leading to loss of momentum and delay for children as workers got up to speed. While social workers visited children regularly, helping to keep them safe, the quality of assessments and plans was “still too varied and too dependent on the skills and experience of children’s allocated worker”. Also, supervision was not ensuring a consistent quality of practice or timely improvement for children, though leaders had recognised this and were putting in extra oversight.

Tahmina Saleem, portfolio holder with responsibility for children’s services, said the council recognised it needed to make further progress in growing the workforce, despite the steps it had already taken in this area.

“As we approach our next inspection, we will continue to build upon the work we have already completed; our key focus remains the quality of our work and the pace of change for children and their families to ensure they receive better outcomes,” she said.

Lower caseloads improving practice

In a visit to Middlesbrough, also in December, inspectors found no children at immediate risk of harm, a “significant improvement” on its last full inspection two years previously, which resulted in an inadequate judgment.

Since then, the council had improved its capacity to deliver services for children in need and subject to a child protection plan by hiring more social workers and creating smaller teams to improve management oversight.

Leaders had successfully focused on compliance with national guidance over the previous 18 months, including by ensuring children were allocated social workers with the time and space to work with them.

Inspectors found audits a particular strength, saying they were well-focused on understanding children’s experiences and were showing improved practice.

However, these still found 20% of practice to be inadequate. Ofsted also identified weaknesses in planning, which lacked timescales relevant to the child, meaning some were left for too long in situations where their needs were not met. In addition, case management oversight was not sufficiently robust to ensure that issues were addressed.

Ofsted added that senior managers were aware of the issues facing the council and had plans in place to address them.

Director of children’s services Sue Butcher said Ofsted’s feedback was “invaluable” to the council as it continued “to put right what we know needs putting right”.

“We know what we need to do as we strive to deliver the service children and their families deserve,” she said.

IROs praised for ‘rigorous’ scrutiny

At Stockton-on-Tees, inspectors praised progress in supporting children in care since a ‘requires improvement’ rating in 2019.

They said “committed, skilled and dedicated social workers know their children extremely well”, and independent reviewing officers (IROs) “rigorously” scrutinise and challenge any plans to secure “timely and appropriate permanence options” when children become looked after.

But Ofsted said in its report that when children lived with connected carers, assessments of their suitability were not always completed before children were placed.

Lisa Evans, cabinet member for children and young people, said there was a “very united feel” amongst social workers and senior staff in Stockton.

“This report is particularly impressive when you consider the array of challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, such as working from home and maintaining face-to-face visits for children,” she said.

“Of course it is now important that we are far from complacent and ensure we build on this very pleasing report.”

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