Ofsted has heavily criticised bosses at a South West council who have continually placed young people “against their best interests” in unsuitable houses of multiple occupation (HMOs).
A warning that risky placements in poor-quality accommodation were leading some children and young people’s outcomes to “significantly decline” formed part of a sharply critical first full inspection at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council.
It followed a late 2020 focused visit to the authority – formed in 2019 after local government reorganisation in Dorset – which warned of serious failings in relation to management oversight and social work practice.
On their return visit, in December 2021, Ofsted found “widespread weaknesses” remained, with leaders still lacking any accurate overview of practice – much of which was described as poor – and attempts at progress hindered by workforce churn.
“Multiple changes of social workers and managers in some teams also contribute greatly to the lack of focus and urgency for many children,” inspectors said, adding that some were being left at risk of harm. “The core business of reducing the risks to children in need of help and protection is yet to have a consistent and effective impact.”
‘No strategic response’ to children’s needs
Ofsted rated the impact of leaders on social work practice as ‘inadequate’, commenting that many improvements since the focused visit were “recent, partial and… yet to have a positive impact on children’s lives”.
Senior managers had yet to develop a strategic response to the needs of unborn and very young children, who were left unassessed and at risk of harm, inspectors found. “The same applies to children waiting for early help, those on child protection or children in need plans and those where concerns have been escalated to the legal arena,” they added.
Ofsted warned that leaders’ ongoing practice of placing young people in HMOs that had not been assessed for their suitability amounted to a “serious oversight”, with decisions around placements often being taken without offering any choice to young people. “Unsurprisingly, most children and young people do not choose to spend much of their time in these placements and for some their outcomes significantly decline,” they said.
More recent Ofsted reports
Inspectors also criticised senior leaders’ visibility from social workers’ perspective, despite some recent efforts to address “unease” in the workforce. “Poor communication contributes to social workers not feeling part of a single organisation with one set of values and one approach to working with children and their families,” their report said.
Ofsted also found that many gaps remained in terms of performance management, with audits “of poor quality”, and procedures around learning from complaints and tracking children’s progress not well developed.
“Workloads are highly variable, with low case numbers in specialist teams and extra pressure on the core teams, who not only work with much higher numbers of children but also experience a high turnover of staff,” Ofsted said. “As a result, children experience fractured relationships with their social workers and delays in receiving the right support at the right time.”
Children left to witness violence
With senior leaders struggling to implement improvements, Ofsted said many families in the BCP area were “not receiving the right help at the right time”.
Thresholds for interventions at various levels were being inconsistently applied, while some children’s plans “identify solutions based on services that are not readily available”, in part, because of long waiting lists, inspectors found.
They added that some children were being left in situations where they were witnessing violence because social workers lacked confidence and guidance around handling domestic abuse.
“There is no coordinated response to risks to unborn babies or a clear message to staff about ‘how we do it here’,” inspectors said. “This is concerning, given the increase in harm to very young children during the pandemic and an increase in very young children on child protection plans.”
While services for children in need of help and protection were rated ‘inadequate’, Ofsted observed a few positive areas, including around safeguarding disabled children and the “valuable resource” provided by the edge of care team. But in many areas inspectors found that good practice was being undermined by the prevailing workforce instability.
Services for children in care and care leavers were judged to ‘require improvement to be good’, with the HMO placements being the main cause for concern.
“When children come into care, it is for the right reasons,” inspectors said, adding that social worker visits were generally in line with children’s needs and that practitioners’ records were clear and articulated children’s wishes and feelings.
Ofsted noted that BCP’s use of special guardianship orders to achieve permanence had remained low, and also said the council needed to the improve monitoring of children’s progress by its virtual school.
Spending increase request
A statement by BCP council said Ofsted’s findings were “balanced and fair” and acknowledged that stabilising the children’s services workforce would be crucial to improving things.
Cathi Hadley, the director of children’s services, said: “Improving children’s social care services is my top priority and I’m determined we will reach a level where all of our children, young people and families are receiving good quality and consistent services across the board.
“We have a clear plan for improvement, we know where we need to make changes and how we need to get there,” added Hadley, who joined at the end of 2021 having spent two years working on improving services in Northamptonshire.
Meanwhile, Mike White, BCP’s portfolio holder for children’s social care, said he would be asking the council for “significant” budget increases to help steady the ship.
“I am proud of our staff who have made many positive changes already,” he said. “Like me, they know we have much more to do, but with strong leadership, a skilled and committed workforce and a clear improvement plan, I am confident we are heading in the right direction.”