A council’s “relentless focus” on working intensively with families is improving children’s lives, Ofsted has said in promoting it to a good rating.
Inspectors found this approach, underpinned by a relational practice model, had helped Durham council avoid multiple re-referrals back into the service. Core social work practice was effective across a majority of services, which Ofsted said was improving children’s lived experiences and reducing needs and risks.
Following an inspection in May, Ofsted also praised the council’s significant investment in developing “innovative” specialist teams, such as its pre-birth and edge-of-care services, which were delivering “very high quality support for the most vulnerable children”.
Durham was rated requires improvement in each of its two previous inspections, in 2016 and 2019, but inspectors found “significant progress in the vast majority of the areas for improvement identified at the last inspection”. Ofsted noted particular progress in leadership, which was now ‘outstanding’, having been ‘requires improvement’ in 2019.
‘Acute knowledge of children’s needs’
Inspectors found that leaders had “an acute knowledge of the needs of children in Durham”, had identified the highest areas of need and demand and had “built effective and responsive services around them”.
While oversight of practice was a weakness in 2019 – when managers at all levels were described as “not sufficiently self-challenging” – it was now a strength, with leaders “continually [striving] for excellent social work practice”.
A “comprehensive” quality assurance programme gave leaders an accurate picture of the quality of services and their impact on children and families, while learning from “numerous” themed audits, embedded through meetings with staff and workshops, was “continually improving service delivery”.
Case file audits, most of which were informed by family feedback, were a “helpful learning experience for social workers”, helping them demonstrate their best practice and identify areas for improvement.
Inspectors said Durham had a “substantial” offer for social workers, consisting of a wide range of training, structured career development pathways and high levels of support for newly qualified social workers through the “extremely well resourced” social work academy.
‘Highly skilled and motivated social workers’
While caseloads were high at the time of the last inspection, they were now manageable, and inspectors said they had encountered “highly skilled and motivated social workers”, who were aspirational for their practice and proud about its impact on improving outcomes for children and families.
The council’s practice model was evident in the way social workers built “trusting and enduring relationships” with children and families where children were in need of help or protection. Expectations of parents were detailed, realistic and supported by skilled social workers and other professionals, leading to “children’s needs and risks reducing, and to their circumstances improving”.
Ofsted also praised social workers’ relationship-based approach with children in care and found that most were living in “caring homes where they make progress and their circumstances improve”.
Practitioners enabled children to maintain relationships with loved-ones, through family time, and supported reunification when appropriate, with thorough transition and support plans meaning children were rarely returned to care.
Areas for improvement included the council’s response to children who went missing, where a rise in demand had meant its response was not consistently robust – for example, return home interviews were sometimes delayed.
“As a result, the circumstances of children going missing are unclear and the risks to them are not well understood,” said Ofsted.
Also, despite inspectors finding good and creative practice with disabled children, some had to wait too long for specialist services, including short breaks, a situation exacerbated by Covid-19.
“This hinders them from making progress and places families under pressure,” said the report.
Ofsted also found that the quality of pathway assessments for care leavers was variable, with some plans not being up to date, specific enough in identifying young people’s needs or sufficiently informed by the care leaver’s voice.
‘Fantastic reflection of incredibly hard work’
In response to the report, Durham’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services, Ted Henderson, said the good rating was “a fantastic reflection of the incredibly hard work that goes on across our children’s services”.
He added: “The report not only recognises the quality of the services we provide, but also recognises our work to build around the needs of children and their families. It is important to us that those we support are given the opportunity to have their say on the help they receive, and this was clearly evident to the inspection team.
“We are always looking to improve and build upon our services and this is also recognised in the report, which acknowledges the efforts we have made since the last inspection to provide the best possible support to families.”