Story updated 23 June 2022
“Exemplary” practice” based on strong social work fundamentals and investment in keeping families together safely has helped a council rise from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’.
After being praised for the strength of its early help and family support approach in last month’s final report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, inspectors echoed this in awarding Camden council the top grade on the back of an inspection in April.
Ofsted said Camden also provided “exceptional” support to children in its care – helping it improve from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ in this area – and also hailed the social work culture that its systemic practice model had embedded.
Social work culture hailed
“Relationships that value culture, identity and the uniqueness of each individual underpin social work practice in Camden,” said the report, which added that this enabled practitioners to build trust with children and families, aided by low caseloads.
These were monitored by managers and leaders, who added capacity when required, while also ensuring social workers felt well-supported – including with personal issues – and providing oversight that was “regular, reflective and impactful across all areas of the service”.
This helped Camden retain the outstanding grade for leadership it earned in 2017. While provision for children in need of help and protection remained ‘good’, it was also highly praised by Ofsted, who, in delivering its overall verdict, said:
There are a very small number of exceptions to what is otherwise exemplary practice, which senior leaders have begun to address.”
Ofsted joins care review’s early help praise
In its final report last month, the care review cited Camden as an exemplar in providing early help and family support – in line with the inquiry’s central call to shift the focus of children’s social care from intervening late to supporting families earlier.
The review found that Camden’s investment in early help and family support was the third highest per head of population in the country in 2020-21, and its focus on this area had helped half referral rates to children’s social care, and the number of children in need by 30%, from 2014-21.
This theme was picked up by Ofsted, which found that a “clear and concerted focus on helping families identify solutions for themselves ensures that statutory services are not involved in their lives for any longer than is necessary”.
It said skilled early help workers provided “focused and purposeful work” and understood thresholds well, managing more complex work when this suited the family.
Family group conferences ‘helping keep children at home’
The council’s longstanding use of family group conferences – also praised by the care review – “effectively avoids children having to leave their homes or their family when it is safe for them to remain”, said Ofsted.
Inspectors praised Camden’s use of advocates and peer mentors to help families in these “person-centred meetings” and said that the use of experts by experience to shape the service had made it more responsive.
Social workers built strong relationships with children – including through play – resulting in purposeful visits, and holistic assessments reached appropriate conclusions, leading to plans focused on the right things, according to the report.
The council’s focus on keeping families together did not impede child protection, with Ofsted finding that practitioners identified children at risk of harm quickly and took “swift and effective” action.
However, social workers made clear to families on child protection plans the route to sustainable change and an “impressive” number of children were diverted out of the pre-proceedings, with two-thirds experiencing a reduction in risks and no further need of protection through the legal process.
Afghanistan response hailed
This emphasis continued when children entered care, with family group conferencing being used to actively support their safe return home, and family time actively assessed and promoted in children’s best interests.
The “vast majority” of children were in placements that met their needs, with permanency plans considered at the earliest stage and children and young people well-matched with foster carers and their cultural and other identity needs well considered.
Social workers got to know children “exceptionally well”, enabling them to “fully respond to their needs as unique individuals”, including by demonstrating “thoughtful and child-focused practice” for the few children subject to multiple placement moves.
Inspectors hailed practitioners’ response to a high number of unaccompanied children from Afghanistan placed in the borough, saying they had carefully assessed their individual experiences and identities, supported them into education, responded to their health needs and guided them through Home Office processes.
The quality of practitioners’ relationships with children continued into the “aspirational” care leaver service, with young people reporting that their rapport with their personal assistants inspired them to succeed.
Care leavers received “exhaustive support” from the local authority and, predominantly, lived in safe and secure accommodation, with many able to stay with their foster carers.
The two main improvement areas highlighted by the Ofsted were for Camden to enhance the response of the local authority designated officer to allegations against professionals, which it found had been inconsistent during recent staffing changes, and to ensure children were accompanied by a social worker when police used their emergency powers of protection. Currently, the emergency duty team did not ensure that this happened.
Responding to the report, Camden’s executive director of supporting people, Martin Pratt said: “I’m incredibly proud of the outcome of this inspection which is testament to our staff who work hard to make a real difference for children and young people who need our help and support across Camden – congratulations and thanks to all.
“This is an incredible result, but the work will not stop here. We will build on what we’ve achieved so far and make further improvements to ensure we can continue to deliver the very best services for our children, young people as well as their carers and families.”