Children waiting up to six weeks to see social workers, as authority downgraded to ‘inadequate’

'Significant, widespread and systemic' front door weaknesses leaving children insufficiently protected at Nottingham, find inspectors, as DfE sends in improvement adviser

Nottingham skyline
Nottingham skyline (Willednic at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons)

Story updated 26 October 2022

Children who met thresholds were left waiting up to six weeks to see a social worker due to “significant, widespread and systemic” weaknesses in a council’s front door service, Ofsted has found.

Inspectors downgraded Nottingham City Council from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘inadequate’ on the back of a full inspection in July, prompting the Department for Education (DfE) to appoint an adviser to chair the city’s improvement board for children’s services.

The inadequate rating overall was driven by provision for children in need of help and protection, particularly the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).

Inspectors found that most cases were not processed within timescales appropriate to children’s risks and needs, including where there were allegations of significant harm, meaning some children were left at continued risk but without safety plans.

Children left waiting for up to six weeks

Delays of up to six weeks in children who met thresholds being seen were driven in part by “complicated systems”, which meant partners sometimes took as long as 16 days to respond to social workers’ requests for information. A significant number of children experienced repeated contacts and referrals before receiving the help they needed, said Ofsted.

Inspectors also criticised management oversight, which was not effective in applying thresholds, providing social workers with direction or overseeing the timeliness of contacts.

Senior leaders identified the backlogs in the MASH in November last year, however, their initial efforts to improve timeliness were not successful as they resulted in more children being referred, said Ofsted. In May this year, the council recruited an extra social work team to manage the pressures but inspectors found that this had not been effective in ensuring a timely and safe response to children who met thresholds – including some at risk of significant harm.

Leaders acknowledged the situation was “unacceptable” and, in response, audited significant numbers of cases to ensure children’s needs had been appropriately assessed, and also brought forward planned changes to the MASH.

In a statement to Community Care, the authority said: “We’ve already committed additional resources, both managerial and social work, to support our work in the MASH. We’re acutely aware of how important this area is and are working at pace, alongside a multi-agency partnership, to improve our timeliness and threshold decision-making within the MASH.”

Practice better beyond the MASH

Beyond the MASH, inspectors found that child in need and child protection practice was better. Most assessments had a clear purpose and rationale for intervention, with direct work providing valuable insights into children’s experiences, and their needs being well-considered by plans that also included their wishes and feelings.

Social workers built positive relationships with children and their families, including through persistent engagement with parents that led to improved outcomes for children. They were also skilled at gathering children’s views, using age-appropriate tools,  and had a good understanding of their needs.

Unlike in the MASH, strategy discussions in response to allegations of significant harm were timely and thresholds appropriately applied,  and section 47 enquiries led to decisions that reduced risks and ensured children were protected.

Inspectors also praised practice for children at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation, for whom detailed assessments, multi-agency meetings and effective planning were reducing risks.

Children also benefited from early and authoritative decisions to escalate cases to pre-proceedings and care proceedings – though some children faced delays in going into care and were left in neglectful circumstances for too long.

Non-social work staff handling ‘complex safeguarding’

However, Ofsted found that for children who went missing from home or care, return home interviews were not held consistently or in a timely fashion, and often lacked sufficient analysis of the child’s circumstances, meaning they did not contribute to safety planning.

The designated officer service to manage allegations against professionals was vulnerable because non-social work qualified staff were involved in gathering information in “a complex and specialist area of safeguarding”, a situation compounded by a lack of management oversight, inspectors added.

This was a problem across help and protection services, which were rated inadequate by Ofsted, with supervision being of variable quality and frequency, and some records lacking reflection on children’s circumstances or timescales for progress.

For children in care and care leaver services, Nottingham retained the requires improvement grade it earned at its last inspection, in 2018. Inspectors found that children were being adopted more quickly due to the use of concurrent planning, with “sensitive direct work” with children and adoptive parents smoothing transitions.

Most children were in stable placements that met their needs, their emotional and mental health needs were appropriately met, and support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was tailored, inspectors found.

‘Too many changes of social worker’ for children in care

However, too many children in care had faced multiple changes of social worker, limiting direct work and their ability to form meaningful relationships with practitioners. Too many children in long-term foster care lacked an up to date assessment of their needs, while insufficient life story work was done with children whose plan for permanence was not adoption.

Staff turnover was also a problem in the fostering service, which resulted in carers having insufficient training or support from supervising social workers.

For care leavers, most benefited from longstanding relationships with dedicated personal advisers (PAs) and had accommodation that met their needs, with many in Staying Put arrangements with former foster carers.

However, the council was not consistently fulfilling its duty to care leavers over 21 and some PAs were having to manage high-risk situations without regular supervision or appropriate staff care, such as lone worker risk assessments.

Loss of ‘inspirational leader’

The report comes against the backdrop of wider government intervention in the authority due to its past unlawful use of funding from its housing revenue account – which is ring-fenced for expenditure on council housing stock – on general services. As a result, the authority must comply with the directions of an improvement and assurance board – accountable to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – in improving its risk management, financial stability and service provision.

Also, the city’s then director of children’s integrated services, Helen Blackman, died in March 2021 after contracting Covid-19. Blackman – described as an “inspirational leader” by colleagues – had held the post since 2013, having worked in the city for almost 25 years.

“Within this challenging context, slow progress was made against the areas for priority action and, while some services improved, others deteriorated,” said Ofsted.

However, rating leadership as requires improvement, as in 2018, inspectors found cause for optimism under the leadership of Ailsa Barr, who became director of children’s integrated services in January this year. Barr, who was part of Rotherham council’s recovery from a damning child exploitation report in 2014 to a good Ofsted rating in 2018, and her “committed leadership team” were beginning to have an impact on practice by setting clear expectations of staff and developing a “high support and high challenge” culture.

But Ofsted added:  “However, the scale of required improvements remains substantial, and the pace of change needs to quicken for all areas of the service to provide safe and consistently good services for children.”

DfE issues improvement notice

On 24 October 2022, the DfE issued an improvement notice, setting expectations for the authority to progress under the guidance of its appointed adviser, Lou Williams, formerly service director for children and safeguarding for Peterborough and Cambridgeshire.

Under the notice, the authority is expected to produce an improvement plan, covering the deficit areas identified by Ofsted, overseen by its existing improvement board, which will be chaired by Williams.

Williams will report to the DfE every six weeks and the department will review the authority’s progress at least every six months, with the authority expected to deliver on its improvement plan by August 2023.

‘I am sorry’ – lead councillor

Cheryl Barnard, Nottingham’s portfolio holder for children, young people and schools, said the council accepted the findings, adding: “I am sorry that some children are not getting the right help at the right time and I accept that our overall performance is not where it should be. Please be assured that everyone in our Children’s Services team is committed to providing the best possible care in our city – and will do whatever it takes to improve. Our children and young people deserve nothing less.

“I am confident that we have the right people in place to take on board all of the feedback and recommendations from Ofsted and provide the right care and support. In particular, it is encouraging that Ofsted acknowledged the improvements we have made – as well as the strong relationships our social workers build with children and young people who need our help and support.”

Barnard added: “We’ve taken immediate action over the summer to make swift improvement in key areas, such as engaging more agency social workers to support whilst we recruit more permanent staff. We have moved swiftly to agree recruitment for additional officers to support the service when children go missing and to work with children who are leaving care.

“We have also increased our management oversight of decision making when information is first received by children’s services and we will be recruiting to permanently secure this in the service.

“Improving our service is about more than just improving the Ofsted rating… it’s about making sure children benefit from the best services possible, making sure they remain are safe, protected and inspired to reach their full potential.”

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