Sandwell’s children’s services have shed the ‘inadequate’ tag they have carried for almost a decade, after Ofsted praised the “energy and vision” of new leadership.
Following an inspection in May, inspectors said progress in the West Midlands borough – judged ‘inadequate’ since 2013 – had increased in “trajectory and pace” since the appointment of Emma Taylor as chief executive of Sandwell Children’s Trust in 2021. The trust has run services on behalf of Sandwell council since 2018, after the government required the authority to hand over its services to the new body.
Initiatives introduced under Taylor – including a shift to locality teams, an early help strategy, a social work career pathway and “high-quality” specialist services – meant there were “no longer widespread and serious weaknesses” at the trust.
But in grading Sandwell requires improvement to be good across all areas, the inspectorate warned that many services were still inconsistent, often due to workforce instability and lack of management oversight. Overall, progress had taken too long since its last ‘inadequate’ grade, back in 2017.
‘Positive impact’ on exploitation risks
Ofsted found that leadership improvements meant many children’s needs were well met by social workers, who worked well with partners.
Several areas attracted high praise from inspectors, such as the work of the trust’s Horizon team with children at risk of being exploited or going missing.
“Horizon social workers are skilled and knowledgeable,” inspectors said. “They develop effective relationships with children, including those who have previously not engaged with professionals.”
Ofsted added that the team successfully reduced risk for many children and that families appreciated its “positive impact”.
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Inspectors also commended the support offered to families by Sandwell’s edge-of-care services. “[The multi-systemic therapy service] provides a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week therapeutic service which is highly successful in preventing family breakdown in circumstances linked to trauma and high-risk behaviours, and is highly valued by families,” they noted.
The children’s services trust’s multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) was another area found to be operating competently – despite referring agencies often not applying thresholds well.
“The vast majority of contacts and referrals are dealt with in a timely way through the MASH, based on effective decision-making,” Ofsted said. “Contacts are screened by experienced and skilled social workers who make suitable decisions, informed by appropriate agency checks and history-taking.”
Inspectors did, however, highlight areas where the MASH could be improved, with social work analysis judged to be “overly descriptive” and managers’ record-keeping sometimes insufficient.
Workforce instability at root of problems
However, inspectors found issues remained across a range of services, many driven by workforce instability and a lack of management oversight.
As of September 2021, 31.5% of children’s social workers in the borough were locums, double the West Midlands average (16.1%), the vacancy rate was 27.7% (West Midlands: 18.2%), while turnover over the previous year had been 25.7%, up from 14.9% the year before.
Too many children in need experienced changes of social worker, undermining trust with families and disrupting progress in their plans, found Ofsted.
While most child protection plans clearly identified needs, risks and expectations of parents, and resulted in them being provided with the right services, inconsistent management oversight meant agreed actions were not always followed through.
Despite inspectors’ praise for edge-of-care services, they found that most children were entering the pre-proceedings stage of the public law outline (PLO) too late, meaning a small number remained in neglectful situations for too long.
“Drift for these children is exacerbated by changes of social worker and weaker management oversight,” the report said.
Children also remained in pre-proceedings for too long, with deficient management oversight meaning there was a lack of accountability or escalation when progress was not made.
Quality of practice ‘too variable’
The deficiencies in pre-proceedings meant too many children came into care in an unplanned way.
Also, the duration of care proceedings was “excessive” and far exceeded judicial guidelines, exacerbated by changes of social worker for children.
Workforce instability and inadequate management oversight also meant practice with children in care was “too variable”.
While many children benefited from skilled work, some – particularly disabled children, those placed out of area and the few young children in residential care – experienced delay in progressing their plans, due to staff turnover and vacancies.
Though oversight was stronger in some children in care teams, supervision was not consistently effective in progressing plans.
“This includes insufficient oversight and escalation by independent reviewing officers (IROs) to senior managers when issues or delays arise,” it added.
At a strategic level, Ofsted assessed the situation in Sandwell to be gradually improving.
Governance was found to be getting better, as was communication between the trust and council, resulting in the needs of children being prioritised.
Performance management was deemed to be strengthening, with social workers viewing case audits as a “learning experience” and work culture become more reflective.
Inspectors said that partnerships still needed to be further developed with a view to “resolving challenges in relation to a shared understanding of thresholds and referrals into children’s social care, and sufficiency of placements for children with complex needs”.
While staff churn meant services remained “fragile”, Ofsted said senior leaders were taking a realistic view of the situation.
“A comprehensive workforce plan has been implemented, which includes recent investment to create additional teams to support social work capacity, a comprehensive staff learning and development offer, and investment in career pathways,” the inspection report said.
‘Turning a corner’
Responding to the inspection outcome, Sandwell council leader Kerrie Carmichael, the leader of Sandwell council, said she was “pleased this inspection shows we have turned a corner”.
Simon Hackett, the council’s cabinet member for children and education, said the local authority “now [has] clear plans in place that mean we can help families when issues first arise”.
“Although we are only still part way through our improvement journey, we are delivering a much better service to children and young people in Sandwell,” he said. “I want to thank our hard-working staff at the council and our partners, particularly Sandwell Children’s Trust, for their dedication to supporting children and young people.”
The trust’s chair, former Labour MP and cabinet minister Jacqui Smith, described the inspection result as a “big step for us”.
“Most importantly, we have much more stability for the majority of the children we are helping,” she said. “The report recognises the pace of change has increased and affirms our own assessment of what further improvements to the service we need to deliver.”