Stoke-on-Trent has shed its ‘inadequate’ status, with Ofsted praising its “co-ordinated and relentless drive” to improve children’s experiences despite pandemic hardships.
The council came under government intervention in 2019 after an inspection found children were not being protected, cases were being “inappropriately closed” and leaders did not understand the extent of the failings.
It escaped having its services removed, after Department for Education-appointed commissioner Eleanor Brazil concluded this would be disruptive, and Ofsted noted steady progress in monitoring visits in 2021 and 2022.
Now, following a full inspection in October, Stoke has been rated requires improvement, after inspectors found progress against all areas identified as under-performing in 2019, particularly praising front door services and work to achieve permanence for children in care.
Reflecting the latter, Ofsted promoted Stoke’s children in care and care leaver services by two grades to ‘good’.
Latest Ofsted reports
The report noted that the pace of Stoke’s progress had increased due to its leadership team stabilising, with the council improving from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ in this area, as in provision for children in need of help and protection.
But the inspectorate warned that further work was required in the quality of case recording, completion of life-story work, management oversight and staffing capacity.
Children in care ‘given stability to flourish’
Ofsted praised Stoke’s focus on placement security and permanence, which allowed children in care “the necessary stability to flourish”. An increasing number of children were placed with adopters, special guardians and long-term foster carers, with the latter being described as “appropriately assessed, trained and supported”.
However, placement shortages remained an “ongoing challenge”, particularly for children with complex needs, and foster carer numbers did not yet meet sufficiency targets.
Social workers were also commended for providing “comprehensive and detailed” evidence in court, and applications for proceedings were “timely for most children”.
Inspectors noted that assessments of children in care were detailed and updated regularly and the minutes of review meetings were written with sensitivity towards the child.
Practitioners completed regular visits to children and, in some cases, efforts were made to ensure their views informed care plans. However, life-story work was missing from many records.
High IRO caseloads
Despite high caseloads, the report praised independent reviewing officers’ (IROs) knowledge of children, a large proportion of whom contributed effectively to their reviews. IROs raised concerns when needed, but managers’ inconsistent responses hindered the effectiveness of the process.
When children went missing, clear safety plans were developed through multi-agency meetings. However, as records of return home interviews were not always stored electronically, professionals could not access them to safeguard children.
Ofsted particularly praised the support provided to care leavers. It said personal advisers (PAs) had created “long-standing, positive and trusting relationships” with care leavers, with transition arrangements well planned, including through the allocation of PAs from the ages of 16-17.
“Despite high caseloads for some PAs, they are committed to ensuring that the needs of care leavers are met,” said the report. “PAs often go over and above to ensure that care leavers are supported, and they advocate on their behalf effectively. As a result, care leavers have a trusted adult they know they can rely on.”
However, inspectors highlighted the missed opportunity of having more care leavers and children in care contribute to the strategic planning and development of services, calling their participation “underdeveloped”.
‘Effective decision-making to safeguard children’
In relation to children in need of help and protection, Ofsted found the needs of most were identified in a timely manner thanks to “detailed and thorough” early help assessments and Stoke’s improved front door service. Within the latter, inspectors found good use of thresholds, understanding of parental consent and information sharing between professionals, including in the event of safeguarding issues.
“When safeguarding concerns are identified, there is timely escalation to strategy meetings to assess risk,” Ofsted said “Strategy meetings are well attended by relevant partners, who share appropriate information. This results in effective decision-making to safeguard children.”
The inspectorate noted that child protection enquiries were detailed, accurately identifying the risk of harm through analysis of historical and current information, and children’s views often informed the next steps.
Practitioners were also praised for effectively safeguarding disabled children.
“Social workers know their children well and advocate on their behalf to ensure they and their families receive the services they need,” said the report.
However, some records lacked clarity and focus on what was important, with information cut and pasted from different documents, the quality of assessments varied and child in need and child protection plans were not consistently up to standard. Safeguarding privately fostered children was also highlighted as a vulnerability for the council, with statutory checks not always timely.
In addition, Stoke’s management oversight of frontline services was deemed inconsistent, and reflective supervision was underdeveloped and infrequent, leading to delays in progressing plans.
A few children also faced delays in progression to pre-proceedings because child protection chairs’ high caseloads meant they were not always able to monitor plans effectively.
‘Visible and supportive’ managers
Ofsted found that leadership improvements, backed by investment in services, had helped accelerate the council’s progress.
Stoke team managers were described as “visible and supportive” by staff, there was a “comprehensive development and progression offer” for social workers and the service had invested in recruiting more practitioners.
However, issues were detected with performance management. Practitioners lacked accurate feedback, as audits often failed to incorporate commentary from children and families, and training and development opportunities had been hindered by recent vacancies triggering higher workloads.
Ofsted said leaders understood that some improvements were fragile and that it needed to recruit more staff to enhance provision for children further, with the current workforce still under pressure.
‘Transforming our service is no mean feat’
Stoke’s cabinet member for children and young people, Dave Evans, said he was pleased that the report recognised the council’s “tireless work”.
He added that “transforming our service is no mean feat and we are under no illusion that further improvements are needed to ensure we provide a consistently good service for all children in the city”.
“We are focused on continuing to improve our services and in working in partnership with other agencies to drive further improvements for the benefit of vulnerable children and families in the city,” Evans added.
Stoke remains under government intervention though there is a good chance this will be lifted in the light of its improved rating.
Its current DfE-appointed commissioner, Paul Moffat, said: “I’m delighted that Ofsted has recognised the significant progress made in Stoke-on-Trent since its last inspection. Staff, leaders and partners have worked incredibly hard to turn this around and I know from recent discussions that they won’t be resting on their laurels and will be relentlessly pursuing their ambition to create outstanding services for children in their area.”