A council must improve at pace in the wake of a damning Ofsted report that found it was not protecting children and young people from harm.
That was the message from Herefordshire Council’s government-appointed commissioner at the start of a review that will determine whether the authority should retain control of its children’s services.
Eleanor Brazil made the comments at an emergency meeting of the council to discuss the recently-published report of Ofsted’s inspection of the council in July, in which it rated Herefordshire as inadequate across the board.
This prompted the Department for Education (DfE) to issue the authority with a statutory direction, requiring it to improve – under Brazil’s guidance and instruction – or face having its services removed Brazil will deliver her verdict to education secretary Kit Malthouse on whether this should happen by 12 December.
Children ‘not protected from harm’
In a report with very few positives, Ofsted (see below) said children were not protected from harm, with the quality of social work practice having “seriously deteriorated” since Herefordshire’s last inspection, in 2018, when it was rated requires improvement.
While the council had made significant investment in the service, the workforce had insufficient capacity to respond in a timely way to children’s needs, while the “heavy reliance” on agency staff made the service “unstable and fragile”.
Though there was now a permanent leadership team in place, under director Darryl Freeman, there had been “a historical lack of stable and capable senior management”, inadequate oversight of practice and a lack of accurate performance data, said Ofsted.
And while inspectors found social workers to be “dedicated and committed”, practitioners expressed frustration at working in a “turbulent environment” and said senior managers lacked visibility.
Presumption that services will be removed
On the day Ofsted issued its report, the DfE published its statutory direction.
As is generally the case when a council is rated inadequate across the board, the DfE said there was a “presumption” that services would be removed from the authority unless there were “compelling reasons not to do so”.
Brazil’s terms of reference are to direct the council to undertake immediate improvements to its services and recommend ongoing improvements that need to be made, and what support would be required to achieve this.
At the same time, she must assess whether the council’s capacity and capability were sufficient to bring about sustainable improvements, and advise the education secretary on options for removing the service from its control, should this not be the case.
These include outsourcing the service to a children’s trust – as will be the case in 12 of the 152 council areas when Bradford’s is established next year – or having a high-performing authority take responsibility, as Hampshire did, successfully, with the Isle of Wight.
Requirement to improve quickly
Brazil, who has taken on the commissioner role in several authorities and is a former director of children’s services, told the emergency meeting that she had no “preconceived idea” for how Herefordshire should improve.
“I will take time to find out what people think, what’s been done and what needs to be done,” she said. “That includes talking to staff within the council, not just in children’s services, at different levels, not just senior leader, but frontline staff as well.”
She added: “One of the things the council recognises, that everyone recognises is that pace of improvement is really important. And part of the statutory direction is about taking a view in terms of the capacity and capability of the council to improve its children’s services at pace.
“It’s not just an open-ended requirement. It’s a requirement to do so quickly. So, I will be looking at the trajectory of improvement, the direction of travel, what difference are we making, not just in six months or a year’s time, but all the time I’m here.”
Brazil said moving out of inadequate would take “anything from 18 months onwards” but that “lots of changes and progress can, should and must be made along the way”.
She added: “There will be some examples of good practice. We need to find them, we need to build on them and we need to strengthen them. And we need to get to the point where that’s the experience of all children who need support.”
Turbulent four years
The Ofsted verdict was the culmination of a turbulent four years for Herefordshire, in which it was heavily criticised in four court judgments and was then the subject of a highly critical Panorama investigation in May this year.
This included a former practitioner saying the authority had a “culture of bullying” and another saying caseloads in the 30s were not uncommon for social workers.
In an interview with Community Care following the programme, director of children’s services Darryl Freeman said the bullying culture was no longer being tolerated and that average caseloads stood at 21.
Following the Ofsted judgment, the council said caseloads were “around 18” now.
More on Herefordshire council
The council meeting heard from families who had been affected by decisions by Herefordshire councils, while a string of councillors – including from its ruling cabinet – expressed dismay and anger at the state of children’s services.
More social workers and reduced caseloads
Its cabinet member for children and families, Diana Toynbee, said the breadth of Ofsted’s recommendations for improvement showed “how fundamental the systems and structures and foundations that should have been well established for years have not been”.
She added: “A lot of progress has been made in the last few months. We’ve recruited more social workers, strengthened our multi-agency safeguarding hub, increased supervision and reduced caseloads for social workers. This is absolutely crucial so they can spend more time with children and families.
“We all want the same thing – to grasp this opportunity to make real progress. The diagnostic phase has taken long enough, and we need to see results now.”
Ofsted’s verdict on Herefordshire
Children in need of help and protection
- Action to protect children was not taken soon enough. Too many strategy meetings were delayed, often due to police unavailability, sometimes for several days, leaving children in situations of unassessed risk and ongoing harm.
- Multi-agency safety planning was largely absent, leaving risks to be managed by social workers during subsequent enquiries.
- Most assessments, including child protection enquiries, were poor, with lack of consideration of the long-term impact of neglect and domestic abuse, and multi-agency information not routinely sought. Consequently, cases were closed too soon or children faced repeat referrals as their needs remained unmet.
- Social work practice was highly variable, with too many children facing drift and delay because of staff turnover, and inspectors finding significant numbers whose risks had not been adequately managed, a finding leaders dealt with immediately.
- Most plans were too generic and do not relate to the identified risks for the child, with some ending prematurely, despite ongoing concerns, leaving children at risk of further harm.
- Many children experienced multiple changes in social worker, which hindered the development of trusting relationships, while some were seen by duty staff because allocated workers live far from Herefordshire and were not office based.
- Escalation to pre-proceedings was sometimes delayed, while once in pre-proceedings, there was further drift and delay in taking essential actions to protect them.
Children in care and care leavers
- Assessments were mostly weak, and plans mostly poor, with a lack of focus on children and young people’s needs.
- Critical life story and therapeutic work to help children understand their lives had not happened.
- Most carer assessments were weak and failed to identify if carers could meet children’s needs and provide a safe, stable and loving long-term home.
- Staff turnover, vacancies, sickness and temporary appointments resulted in a lack of continuity, consistency and support for children, staff and foster carers.
- There was insufficient management oversight of children living in unregistered children’s homes and for children subject to deprivation of liberty orders.
- There was insufficient management oversight of children in unregistered children’s homes or subject to deprivation of liberty orders, with the authority providing inspectors with three different sets of information on this during their visit.
- Its offer to care leavers was weak and lacked aspiration, with some not allocated a personal adviser soon enough and a lack of suitable accommodation.
- Herefordshire has historically lacked of a stable and capable team of senior managers. While it now had a permanent leadership team, it was too soon to see the impact.
- The pace of improvement is too slow, with the council’s improvement board hindered in developing a workable plan because of inaccurate and unavailable data, and problems seucring capacity and necessary support from partners.
- There was insufficient management grip and oversight across most areas of social work practice, while senior managers lacked robust oversight of practice because of a previous absence of performance data and reliance on self-reporting by more junior managers.
- Though leaders had secured more resource to deal with demands on the workforce, this had resulted in the use of high numbers of agency staff and project teams, making the service “highly fragile”.
- Despite it being a longstanding challenge, the local authority’s offer to recruit and retain social workers was not fully operational, including because of a lack of corporate support.
- A “time-consuming” case management system, along with high workloads, meant social workers struggled to keep records up to date, resulting in some being missing from children’s files.
- While social workers were “dedicated and committed”, the vast majority still worked virtually – “with poor guidance, lack of consistent management oversight and irregular and often weak supervision”.
- Practitioners felt “frustrated” by working in a “turbulent environment” with a lack of structure, and said senior managers’ visibility was poor.