Families are missing out on the social work support they need because some early help staff are being given overly complex cases, inspectors have found.
Inspections of five areas identified some “excellent” early help practice, but also cases where lead professionals did not have the necessary skills and experience to provide robust oversight of the situation, amid a lack of early help staff capacity across agencies.
Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found cases where families should have been stepped up from early help to statutory social care earlier than they were because of the risks to children. There were also variations between areas about where this threshold lay.
The inspectorates delivered the messages in a report published today summarising findings from the five joint targeted area inspections (JTAIs), carried out between December 2022 and March 2023.
These were focused on targeted early help, a voluntary, casework-based service for children and families with complex needs who do not meet the threshold for statutory social care
Social care reform concerns
The report comes with the Department for Education planning to merge targeted early help with child in need services as part of its children’s social care reforms, in order to improve the quality, timeliness and continuity of family support.
The changes will also enable councils to allocate child in need cases to non-social workers – which is currently prohibited by the Working Together to Safeguard Children statutory guidance – a development Ofsted has previously warned may undermine quality and increase risk.
In today’s report, the three inspectorates said that the lack of capacity in early help “was likely to hinder progress in achieving the full vision of the reforms”.
The JTAIs drew on inspections of front door services, a sample of early help cases, observations of multi-agency meetings and decision making and discussions with families, children, practitioners, managers and leaders, among other sources of evidence.
Ofsted, the CQC and HMICFRS identified “a great deal of good practice in some local areas”.
Foundations for good practice in early help
- Early help provision is based on joint strategic needs assessments and so is needs-led.
- Agencies work in partnership with the voluntary and community sectors.
- There are sufficiently senior staff with oversight of early help.
- Multi-agency safeguarding hubs that were physically co-located and had good information sharing systems.
- Having well-trained, experienced early help frontline practitioners providing sensitive and creative child-centred interventions.
‘Striking’ variability in practice
However, they said their most striking finding from the JTAIs was the variability between and within the local areas, both in the level of support provided to families and in how it was delivered, they said.
This chimed with previous evidence, with the inspectorates citing research findings from charity Action for Children that early help provision ranged from less than 1% of children to over 15% between areas in 2019-20.
The inspectorates attributed this variation in part to the lack of a statutory framework for early help and the fact that Working Together did not have “clear enough expectations in relation to early help and thresholds”.
Each area took a different approach to the level of intervention that could be provided at either side of the early help-statutory social work threshold, they said.
Delays in referring cases to social care
In some areas, there was no clear process to consider whether the family had reached the threshold for statutory intervention leading, in some cases, to a delay in getting the right help to families.
Inspectors frequently questioned councils and partners on whether stepping cases up to social care might have reduced risks to children sooner.
“Some children’s cases that remained with early help professionals would clearly have benefited from statutory social work intervention because there was a higher level of risk or because their situation was not improving,” the report added.
Early help staff ‘working with increasing complexity’
Early help professionals were “increasingly working with highly complex family situations” that were sometimes “above a level that they felt was appropriate for them”.
“Those families needed the professional expertise of a social worker and more robust oversight through reviews and monitoring of plans,” the inspectorates said.
They called for consistent expectations about early help practitioners’ skills, training and experience, underpinned by high-quality, reflective supervision.
However, they added that “having an effective and skilled workforce depends on there being adequate staff capacity”, which was lacking in the agencies inspected.
Information sharing problems
In some cases, there was no lead professional co-ordinating multi-agency work, which led to agencies working in silos and poor information sharing about risks.
This was exacerbated by barriers in accessing information across agencies, with information about family mental health being often being difficult to source when practitioners were making safeguarding checks.
Lack of effective joint working also led to work being duplicated and families facing repeat assessments, taking away from a focus on the interventions they needed, inspectors found.
Inadequate information sharing was underpinned in some cases by poor recording, with some areas not recording information about the child’s ethnicity, culture or religion, the report said.
Need for improved consistency
The inspectorates concluded: “We saw well-trained and knowledgeable early help workers from a range of agencies undertaking effective work with children and families, meeting need and reducing risk.
“However, this was not consistent. More needs to be done to ensure that all professionals have the skills and knowledge to assess, help and safeguard children and families effectively.”
To address variations in early help provision, the DfE plans to introduce clearer guidance on eligibility for family help, so there is “consistent national understanding of who should receive this support, but local areas can meet families’ needs flexibly”.
This will be tested through its current families first for children pathfinders, who are trialling the family help model.
‘Simply not enough money in the system’
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services said it welcomed the focus on early help in the government’s strategy but it needed to be met with sufficient funding, both to meet existing need and deliver on the reforms.
“There is no doubt the earlier we work with children and their families to overcome the issues they face, the less impact these challenges may have on their lives, and on society,” said vice president Andy Smith.
“Local authorities are committed to supporting families at the earliest possible opportunity but the current method of funding children’s services doesn’t enable this approach in all local areas; there is simply not enough funding in the system to meet the level of need in our communities.
“Too often funding is competitive or time limited, which means not all children benefit and future funding is uncertain, or it is taken out of the system and into the hands of private equity firms, profiteering on the backs of vulnerable children. The government must address this.