Boost to social worker numbers despite funding constraints helps council improve Ofsted grade

Most children and families receiving a much better service at Luton but need for further progress, say inspectors, in delivering requires improvement rating

Image of compass arrow pointing to word 'improvement' (credit: Coloures-Pic / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Coloures-Pic / Adobe Stock)

Investing in social workers in the face of “extremely challenging constraints in funding” has helped a council improve its Ofsted grade from inadequate to requires improvement.

Following an inspection in July, Ofsted found children and families were receiving a much better service at Luton since it was last inspected in 2020, when inspectors found serious decision-making failures across child protection in the context of significant workforce instability.

Inspectors particularly praised senior managers for turning the situation around, rating Luton as good for leadership.

Boost to social worker numbers

They cited leaders’ decision to increase social worker numbers – including by creating a new looked-after children team and creating a dedicated independent reviewing officer post for care leavers – despite funding constraints. Ofsted said this demonstrated the “corporate priority that is given to children’s services” at the borough.

Leaders had adopted a grow your own approach to the workforce including through a social work academy – whose training was valued by staff. This was part of “a sustainable strategy to improve recruitment, retention and development of staff” that also included targets to reduce agency staff numbers and increase newly qualified recruits.

Senior managers had also taken action to reduce the “very high caseloads” for social workers seen at the last inspection and subsequent monitoring visits, enabling, for example, social workers in the children with disabilities teamto work intensively with children with complex needs, preventing these from escalating.

Front door practice ‘significantly strengthened’

Ofsted said Luton had “significantly strengthened” practice at the front door since the last inspection, when inspectors found some safeguarding referrals were being inappropriately redirected to early help. Now, the report said, appropriate threshold decision making by deputy managers meant children received a proportionate response to their need, with social workers having the information and guidance to respond to concerns without delay.

Other areas of significant improvement included the council’s response to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds – deemed ineffective in 2020. A dedicated family partnership worker ensured young people received immediate advice, alongside a social work assessment, with a multi-disciplinary panel overseeing practice in this area.

Professionals also took “swift and effective action” in response to suspected honour-based violence, female genital mutilation or forced marriage, with regular management oversight providing clear direction to social workers in these cases.

And, using the family safeguarding approach – under which children’s social workers work with specialist adult workers to tackle parental needs that drive risks to children – most children on child protection or child in need plans received “carefully considered and effective support”.

Senior managers ensured children entered the public law outline at the right time, and this was generally used well to divert children from care proceedings, including through the use of a panel to oversee decision making.

Assessment criticisms

Rating the authority as requires improvement in providing for children in need of help and protection, Ofsted found a number of areas where Luton still needed to progress, including:

  • Some assessments not being sufficiently thorough, with not enough focus on children’s histories to ensure an in-depth understanding of their vulnerabilities.
  • Changes of social worker or manager meaning some assessments took too long, delaying the support children needed.
  • For some children stepped down from a child protection plan, the resulting child in need plan was insufficiently robust to ensure they continued to make progress.

Inspectors delivered the same rating to services for children in care and care leavers.

Most children were in stable and culturally-matched placements, with the majority of plans reflecting their needs and setting out how these would be achieved. The fostering service provided strong support to both social workers and foster carers – against a backdrop of significant recruitment challenges – and inspectors also praised the adoption service for the support it offered children and adopters.

It said leaders had taken action to improve the sensitivity of child permanence reports after identifying issues with these, including through supporting closer work between adoption and children in care social workers.

However, inspectors said that permanence planning for children in long-term foster care was not strong and some children’s social workers were not able to explain the rationale for past matching decisions. This meant that “children may not be able to understand life-changing decisions that have been made for them”.

Personal advisers allocated from age 15 

Ofsted praised the council’s practice of allocating personal advisers to children in care when they were 15 or 16, enabling PAs to get to know them before they left care. Inspectors said most care leavers benefited from a high degree of contact from PAs, who had invested considerable time and effort in developing good relationships with those who needed significant emotional support.

However, the inspectorate said that the quality of pathway plans was variable, with stronger plans being written with the young person and weaker ones lacking aspiration and not identifying the impact of care leavers’ needs on their lives.

Though Ofsted praised the quality of leadership at Luton, it said that, while managers had taken action to improve supervision, its quality of variable, with some social workers not receiving the direction to ensure children received the right support at the right time.

‘Significant improvements but more to do’

In response to the report, Tahmina Saleem, portfolio holder for children’s services, said: “While it was always going to take time to completely turn the service around from where it was back in 2020, the report published today clearly states children and families in Luton are better supported, better protected and significant improvements have been made across the service.

“Despite the significant progress, we acknowledge we need to make further improvements so that all children in Luton can thrive and have the life opportunities they deserve. We remain completely focused upon continuing to make positive changes based on what Ofsted has told us and the improvement plans already in place.
“We can be proud of the significant progress we have made and it is absolutely right to acknowledge and thank our staff, partners and leadership team for their hard work, tenacious drive and extreme determination. Together they have delivered significant improvements across the service throughout what has been the most challenging of times during the pandemic.”

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