A council’s response to children at immediate risk of harm has “deteriorated” after senior leaders failed to speedily put in place extra funds to boost social work capacity, Ofsted has warned.
A focused visit to Tameside in April, primarily looking at the council’s ‘front door’, found that additional investment promised after inspectors’ last trip to the Greater Manchester borough had not materialised quickly enough, fuelling widespread service delays.
Ten months had elapsed between the previous focused visit, in May 2021, and an additional social work team being set up, with tentative improvements only just being felt, Ofsted said.
“Too many children experience delay in having their needs for help and protection promptly assessed and met,” inspectors wrote in a letter to Ali Stathers-Tracey, Tameside’s director of children’s services (DCS).
“There is a systemic delay in the convening of strategy discussions, which means that risk for most children is not promptly considered in a multi-agency forum, leaving children in circumstances of unassessed risk for too long.”
Caseloads remain too high
It linked this to caseloads, which remained high for too many social workers.
Inspectors noted that Stathers-Tracey, who has only recently started in post, had made “positive changes to support improvements in social work practice, staff morale and partnership working”.
These included co-locating the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) with early help services, leading to “prompt” identification of support needs, developing neighbourhood teams and reintroducing duty and assessment teams.
A new recruitment and retention strategy was also found to be starting to boost capacity, with experienced social workers joining the council.
‘Leaders do not know their services well enough’
Staff, who mostly felt supported by management, “reported that they have very recently seen a positive change in the culture and ways of working in Tameside, with clearer expectations being provided, which is better supporting them in their work”, inspectors said.
But, Ofsted warned, “despite recent changes, political, corporate and operational leaders do not know their services and the impact for children well enough”, an observation borne out in them not being “fully aware” of the systemic delays uncovered during the visit.
Inspectors added that Stathers-Tracey had deemed the improvement plan in place at the time of her appointment to be “not fit for purpose” in terms of addressing necessary practice improvements or holding people to account for progress made.
More recent Ofsted reports
A new internal review had been commissioned by the DCS to inform ongoing service planning, Ofsted said.
The letter to Stathers-Tracey said senior leaders must improve their understanding of services’ strengths and weaknesses, “and for this to be underpinned by a well-informed self-assessment and improvement plan that will drive and monitor practice improvement effectively”.
Ofsted added that assessments and strategy meetings must become more timely and that supervision and challenge around poor practice needed improvement, as did Tameside’s relationship with Greater Manchester Police.
MP calls for government intervention
Tameside council’s children’s services were graded ‘inadequate’ between 2016 and reinspection in 2019, when they were judged ‘requires improvement’ in all areas. Insufficient staffing capacity was described as a “primary contributing factor to poor practice” at the 2016 inspection but had improved at the reinspection thanks to a focus on recruitment and retention and a drop in social worker turnover, reducing caseloads.
Following the publication of the latest report, Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, whose constituency sits mostly within Tameside, called for the government to intervene and said he would be seeking a meeting with children’s minister Will Quince.
“Tameside council have, to their credit, tripled the children’s services budget in recent years, but Ofsted seem to have singled out the lack of political drive or understanding, together with corporate and operational failings in the department as the main blockage for change,” he said. “That’s a big worry for me.”
Responding to the focused visit outcome, a spokesperson for the council said: “We absolutely recognise the continued need to improve at pace and accept the areas of development that have been outlined.
“With recent new senior appointments, our commitment to appoint a fresh, permanent social care leadership team and an increase in the number of experienced social workers, we are on track to further improve our progress and critically, protect our most vulnerable young people,” the spokesperson added.
“Working with partners and the DfE, we will deliver our improvement plan that will ensure we have a joined up approach that has the voice of the child at the heart of it, so we can deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families.”
‘Stringent efforts’ to involve families in North East council
Ofsted also published the results of focused visits to two other local authorities’ front doors this week.
In North Tyneside, which was graded ‘outstanding’ just before the first Covid lockdown, inspectors praised the “highly skilled and knowledgable” staff, working under a “strong and effective” senior leadership team that promotes innovative work.
“This is creating an environment for staff at the front door where excellent practice can flourish,” Ofsted wrote in a letter following this visit.
“Stringent efforts are made to work with families at an early stage by social care and the wider partnership, which is providing support to children and their families as soon as problems start,” inspectors added. “This is enabling families to become involved in the decisions which affect them at the earliest opportunity.”
Voice of the child a ‘practice strength’ *
The London borough of Redbridge, another ‘outstanding’ authority, also received a mostly positive response from the inspectorate after its visit to the council’s front door.
Since the previous full inspection in 2019, Ofsted wrote, “senior managers have further developed the front door, which now also includes the domestic abuse Reach Out service and single points of contact for contextual safeguarding and children’s mental health”.
When domestic abuse is identified, the response was “very strong”, with Reach Out practitioners making “strenuous efforts” to work with both parents, resulting in many families having their needs met promptly.
Child and family assessments were of high quality, giving a holistic picture of the child and ensuring services met their needs.
Inspectors said the importance given to the voice of the child a practice strength in the borough.
“This is an integral aspect of work with families, with children seen regularly and direct work undertaken with them, usually over several meetings,” Ofsted found.
However, while confirming that the council was continuing to provide a “high-quality” service, inspectors identified areas for improvement, notably about the attendance of partner agencies at strategy meetings.
“Senior managers made inspectors aware before this visit that the participation of other agencies at strategy meetings has been a persistent problem since the Covid-19 lockdowns,” Ofsted wrote. “Participation by the Metropolitan Police has been limited, and attendance by health and education services has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.”
While inspectors did not find the council at fault, noting that children were not being put at risk, they said it must continue to work with partners to remedy the situation.
The story has been amended to provide more information on Ofsted’s findings from its visit to Redbridge.