A South West council has held on to its ‘good’ rating in its first inspection for five years after Ofsted praised its “impressive” efforts to help children stay with their families despite pre-proceedings processes having started.
Strong interventions by Bath and North East Somerset (BaNES) council with families at this stage of child protection procedures resulted in more than half of children being prevented from having to enter care, with social workers “promoting sustainable change”.
“Feedback from the district judge and [Cafcass] is overwhelmingly positive about the quality and effectiveness of this innovative and research-informed practice with children and their families,” inspectors said in their report.
Dine Romero, BaNES’ cabinet member for children, young people, communities and culture, said she was “delighted” that Ofsted had “recognised significant improvements since the previous inspection in 2017 and commended the hard work and commitment of all staff across children’s services”.
Inspectors found children’s services had been strengthened since their last visit, despite the extra pressures of the pandemic, thanks to “substantial” investment by senior leaders and elected members and well-managed improvements, including the successful rollout of a new practice model.
Redesigned front door provides ‘clarity’
Among the changes, inspectors noted that a redesign of the front door had “provided clarity for partner agencies” and an improved service for children and families.
“Targeted services in early help provide clear pathways for support and are more fully integrated into early decisions,” Ofsted said. “Thresholds for decisions about risk and need are well understood and appropriately applied, as is the need to obtain and record the consent of parents, carers and older children, or the reason that consent had to be dispensed with, before sharing information across agencies.”
Ofsted added that contacts with the front door were rapidly directed to early help of family support services for assessment, with child protection strategy discussions swiftly commenced where children were at immediate risk of harm.
The inspection report praised social workers’ professional curiosity during visits to children, observing that they “demonstrate a clear understanding of children’s lived experiences and views, including those of disabled children”. Direct work was described as imaginative and relationships between practitioners and children “enduring and purposeful”, with work with children at risk of exploitation particularly strong.
Recent increases in demand had been managed well leading to “little impact on children and they families”, with a range of specialist services available and oversight and supervision of casework being generally good. Inspectors did, however, say that the consistency of return-home interviews with children who go missing needed to improve.
‘Ongoing commitment to do even better’
Services for children in care and care leavers also drew broadly positive comments, with social workers’ relationships with children again being praised.
“Additional processes have recently been put in place to progress permanence plans for children, including a panel immediately prior to children’s second child in care review meeting,” Ofsted said. “Although the local authority is already doing well in achieving permanent homes for children quickly, such measures are demonstrative of their ongoing commitment to do even better.”
For some older children and those with very complex needs, Ofsted said there were insufficient placement options available, with out-of-area placements also being common in part because of the small size of the local authority.
“However, most children live with foster carers or in homes that are well matched to their needs, and the local authority has a comprehensive strategy in place to improve this further,” Ofsted said. The council was also found to have improved its offer to care leavers, with the creation of a dedicated team playing a significant part in this.
Leaders aware of areas for improvement
“However, support to care leavers is not all of a consistently high standard,” Ofsted cautioned. “For the most vulnerable care leavers, the support they receive can sometimes lack the rigour and tenacity offered to other more vulnerable children such as those in care with complex needs or children at risk of exploitation.”
Inspectors did, however, add that senior leaders – who they said were supportive of and well-regarded by staff – were keenly aware of the areas in which services needed to improve, and taking appropriate action.
Responding to the inspection result, Romero said: “I would like to thank our dedicated teams for the work they do to help improve people’s lives – especially those of our most vulnerable children, young people and families.
“We know there is always room to improve and we will continue to strive to help our children and young people overcome the challenges they face,” she added.