The determined and well-focused leadership of the director of children’s services at Swindon has delivered significant improvement in children’s services, Ofsted has said.
The DCS and his leadership team have taken swift and decisive action to improve services for children and young people in Swindon, the children's inspection reported. Following the inspection of 2014, services declined, and the focused visit undertaken in 2018 found that services had deteriorated to a point where several areas for priority action were identified.
"The quality of leadership in Swindon is a key strength and has ensured the delivery of swift and well-targeted improvements across all areas of children’s services. The DCS and his team have been systematic and relentless in their efforts to drive developments in Swindon and acknowledge that evident improvements have been made from a low base," said Ofsted.
The DCS and senior leaders are highly visible and dedicated in their commitment to improving experiences for children, it added.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, which was rated as good, Ofsted highlighted.
- The Swindon local authority early help offer has been strengthened to ensure that more children and families receive support through the newly created early help hub.
- All areas for priority action from the focused visit in May 2018 have been addressed.
- Children are seen quickly by social workers, and as frequently as necessary, so that the risks and needs for the whole family can be thoroughly assessed.
- Child protection enquiries are effective and timely.
- Assessments are timely and comprehensive and completed with minimum delay.
- The focus on securing permanence for children has improved.
- Disabled children in need of help and protection receive an effective and timely response to their needs from the point of referral.
- Responses to individual children identified as being at risk of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, are mostly timely and effective.
- Arrangements to identify and support children who go missing have improved significantly.
However, the report warns that the quality of child in need and child protection plans is inconsistent. While planning for children is effective and well targeted, the actual written plan is not easily accessible or sufficiently clear. This weakness is further compounded by an electronic recording system that is difficult to navigate. As a result, social workers are currently translating plans for parents to ensure that they fully understand the content. Senior leaders have undertaken significant activity to improve plans but this has not yet led to a consistent improvement for all children’s plans.
The children's services inspection found that the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. The report outlined:
- Decisions to look after children are now mostly timely. While historically there has been evidence of drift and delay in children coming into care, there is now a clear focus on achieving permanence for children, and permanence plans are now in place for most children.
- The quality of assessments of children, as well as assessments of together and apart and of viability, is good.
- Assessments routinely include a comprehensive analysis of risk and protective factors and a good consideration of the impact of historical events, particularly in cases where neglect is a feature.
- The role of the independent reviewing officers (IROs) has been strengthened, and their quality assurance function is now ensuring effective scrutiny and greater oversight of arrangements for children in care.
- Good attention is now paid to the health of children in care and most have up-todate annual health assessments, dental checks and immunisations.
- Senior leaders recognise that Swindon has a shortage of foster carers with the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience, and that this has resulted in limited placement choice.
- Adoption arrangements have been recently strengthened, although this is not yet consistently benefiting children.
- The development of the dedicated care leavers team, coupled with increased staffing, has reduced personal advisers’ (PAs) caseloads and improved the quality and impact of management oversight.
- Children are swiftly allocated a PA, who works jointly with the allocated social worker to ensure that young people are now able to establish meaningful and sustained relationships with their PA.
The DCS has ensured that there is now a much sharper focus on the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers. However, improvement has been from a low base. A shortage of foster carers with the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience means that placement choice is limited, resulting in too many children in care living in placements out of area. Placement stability is a challenge. While there is renewed determination to ensure that children achieve permanence in a timely way, there are significant legacy issues. Some children have waited too long to be adopted.
Senior leaders recognise that Swindon has a shortage of foster carers with the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience, and that this has resulted in limited placement choice. The quality of pathway plans, while improved since the focused visit, is variable.
Further, while young people are prepared for independence, Swindon does not currently have a systematic process to ensure that young people are helped to develop their skills in preparation for adulthood.
Ofsted said the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families is good. The report highlights:
- Following his appointment, the DCS recognised that the quality of practice in Swindon had declined following the inspection in 2014. Since then, however, there has been significant improvement, and in the last 12 months, the DCS and his team have taken resolute action to improve the quality of services in Swindon.
- Governance arrangements have been strengthened, and a new chief executive and lead member have been appointed.
- The quality of leadership and management at all levels in Swindon is a key strength, and the senior leadership team is ambitious, energetic and assured in the oversight and delivery of services to children and their families.
- There has been a significant increase in the financial investment in children’s services.
- Improvements are notable in several key areas. Supervision and management oversight are now timely and purposeful, and are well documented in most case records. Caseloads have halved, and social workers and managers feel well supported and have access to a comprehensive range of well-targeted training opportunities.
- While significant improvements have been achieved across the service, a small number of areas for development remain. Services for children looked after, while much improved, require further improvement to be good.
- Senior leaders had already identified all areas of weakness identified during this inspection. However, remedial action to address these is at varying stages of implementation, and outcomes are not yet consistently good for children in care in Swindon.
- Social work stability over recent years has been a significant challenge in Swindon. While the number of agency staff is high at 63%, most of this cohort are long-term locums, and this has ensured that, more recently, children have enjoyed consistency of social worker. The local authority has updated its workforce development strategy, which clearly sets out its revised recruitment and retention strategies.
- Quality assurance arrangements have been significantly strengthened in Swindon through a revised quality assurance framework.
- Performance management arrangements have been refined, and the use of performance information to drive service development is now fully embedded.
"Staff morale is high and the DCS and senior leadership team are highly visible to all staff. Staff greatly value the practice week, when senior leaders join them in their daily work activities to gain an understanding of staff experiences and further monitor the quality of practice," the report concluded.
Ofsted recommends that Swindon improves the extent to which plans for children, across the service, include clear, specific and timebound actions as well as contingency arrangements. The sufficiency of local placements to meet the needs of older children, as well as those children with complex needs should be addressed.
The timeliness and quality of preparation of care leavers for independent living needs improvement as does health histories, so that they are routinely available for all care leavers in a timely way.
Inspection of children’s social care services