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Buckinghamshire shows early signs of improvement

Buckinghamshire children's services is beginning to demonstrate some early signs of improvement in some parts of the service providing help and protection for children, Ofsted has said.

However, in the second monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate for overall effectiveness in January 2018, inspectors said onsiderable pressures on capacity are evident in some parts of the service and the quality of assessment, planning and intervention remains too variable.

"Since the last monitoring visit, leaders have continued to respond purposefully to the critical weaknesses in services for children in need of help and protection in Buckinghamshire. The senior leadership team continues to maintain a clear focus on how best to improve children’s services and have the political support to deliver this," said the report.

"They have an accurate understanding of the extent of the challenge and a realistic improvement plan in place to address this. They are focusing attention on the things that matter most and recognise that their greatest challenge is to stabilise the workforce," it added.

Ofsted highlighted that Buckinghamshire has worked determinedly to deliver improvements across the service, with strong political support. Work has taken place to re-align the service, refresh the quality assurance framework and review the child protection advisory service. A refreshed improvement plan, implemented in November 2018, brings an increased focus on strengthening practice and quality standards, alongside continuing to embed performance compliance.

Leaders are under no illusion about the extent of the improvement that is needed, and they demonstrate a determination to deliver this.

The report noted:

- Variability in standards of social work practice and frontline management impedes the practice improvements that are needed, and that leaders aspire to.

- The high rate of social worker and manager turnover has created shortfalls in capacity, leading to high caseloads for some social workers.

- Most social workers visit children regularly and build effective relationships with them, taking time to understand their experiences. However, not all children are visited in accordance with their needs, with gaps in visiting evident.

- Social workers use a range of direct work tools to engage children and elicit their views, but there is more to do to ensure that this work is properly recorded.

- Managers have more recently begun to take rigorous action to improve the quality of assessments, but variability remains. Too many lack sufficient analysis to inform the assessment of risk and decisions regarding next steps.

- Managers’ work to strengthen the quality of assessments has led to a decline in assessment timeliness, and higher caseloads.

- The quality of child protection plans requires improvement. Some plans do not include clear actions or timescales for delivery, and language is often professional, making it difficult for parents to understand.

- The senior leadership team has ensured increased oversight of child protection planning since the inspection.

- When children’s cases are escalated to legal planning, these meetings are used effectively to consider whether the threshold is met for proceedings and to inform planning regarding next steps.

The report concludes that the refreshed ‘Beyond Auditing’ quality assurance framework is providing senior managers with an effective understanding of the quality of social work practice. The new strengths-based approach to auditing provides social workers with opportunities for reflection and learning, facilitating practice development.

Subsequent action is not always sufficiently rigorous in addressing shortfalls in practice or ensuring that actions are completed so that children’s plans progress at the pace needed. Senior leaders are aware of this and continue to take action to address practice deficits, Ofsted concluded.

Buckinghamshire monitoring visit

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