‘Inadequate’ council making headway with front door and early help services, Ofsted finds

Inspectors praise strong partnership working and efforts to reduce statutory interventions after fourth monitoring visit to Middlesbrough, but warn high caseloads and workforce churn are hitting assessment service

Image of Middlesbrough town hall and civic centre (Credit: Francis Hannaway / Wikimedia Commons)
Middlesbrough town hall and civic centre (Credit: Francis Hannaway / Wikimedia Commons)

Ofsted has praised improvements to an ‘inadequate’ local authority’s front door and early help services, in the face of ongoing workforce instability and rising pressure on social workers due to high caseloads.

A fourth monitoring visit to Middlesbrough since the council received the lowest possible grade in January 2020 focused on the front door and on child protection enquiries, child in need and early help assessments and how children were stepped up and down between services.

Inspectors praised the council’s senior leadership team for their oversight of progress at the front door, and said they had created a “substantial workforce development offer” in response to persistent high levels of agency staffing.

They also noted that a “wide menu of support services and targeted [early help] interventions” was “preventing risks escalating and reducing the need for statutory social care intervention” in cases they examined.

“Children promptly step up and step down from early help in line with their needs,” Ofsted said. “As a result, more families are working with early help and their circumstances are improving.”

‘Gaps in responding to children’s needs’

But Ofsted also warned that caseload pressures were continuing to cause problems, especially in the assessment service, which had been experiencing high volumes of complex work.

“Workforce instability and increased demand have led to the slowing of throughput of children’s cases in [the assessment] service,” the report said. This was placing additional pressure on some social workers’ caseloads and the quality of practice.

“There have been some gaps in case recording and case records not being finalised,” it added. “This leaves some children’s records incomplete and can lead to gaps or delay in identifying and responding to their needs.”

The difficulties faced by the assessment service were reflected in the results of audits carried out by senior managers, a quarter of which were rated as inadequate.

Inspectors praised leaders’ quality assurance processes as being generally “robust and comprehensive”, giving them an accurate understanding of practice quality.

In contrast with the assessment service, audits covering the multi-agency children’s hub (MACH) – the front door – and early help were demonstrating “a significant improvement with the majority of practice now rated as good”, Ofsted said.

Prompt responses by front door

In the MACH, Ofsted highlighted how strong relationships with partner agencies were helping to manage rising demand.

“Managers have worked with partner agencies to improve the quality of contacts and referrals into the MACH in line with the agreed threshold document,” said the report. “This is ensuring that children and families referred through the MACH receive a well-coordinated response in line with their needs.”

Managers were appropriately prioritising cases to ensure the most urgent were being given priority, Ofsted found.

“Any delays are appropriate and in the best interests of children, so that a well-informed decision can be made,” inspectors said. “Children whose risks are such that they need an immediate response are considered without delay. If an urgent visit is required, this is completed on the same day.”

Where children faced escalating risks, promptly held and well attended strategy meetings identified key risks and generally ensured children had a plan to protect them from increasing harm.

However, Ofsted cautioned that in a few cases responses were disproportionate to the levels of risk present, meaning some families faced “overly intrusive” interventions that also increased pressure on social workers.

‘We’re fully committed to the work’

In response to the findings, Middlesbrough’s executive director of children’s services (DCS), Sue Butcher, expressed her pride for staff members’ and partners’ hard work, while acknowledging the still-present need for improvement in the system.

“While the feedback from the latest Ofsted monitoring visit is very encouraging, it also highlights a number of areas where improvements are still required,” she said.

“We’re fully committed to that work, and I remain confident  that we remain on track.”

Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston also ‘welcomed’ Ofsted’s findings and pledged to continue to encourage change and development.

“Improvements are still needed, but this is enormously encouraging and I’m grateful for every member of staff for their passion, commitment and professionalism,” he said in a statement.

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