There has been a decline in the overall effectiveness of children’s social care services in Stockton-on-Tees since the last inspection in 2016, Ofsted has warned.
While some services are strong, there has been insufficient management oversight and grip across the full range of services, and this is leading to unnecessary delay for some children in their assessed needs being met.
"Managers have concentrated heavily on improvements, including an updated electronic recording system, the early help offer and services to children on the edges of care.
However, there has been a decline in practice in some areas. For example, managers have not identified and addressed the extent of drift and delay in pre-proceedings work, or delays for children becoming looked after when they are living with their family and friends by arrangement with the local authority. Unqualified workers are holding children’s cases and making social work decisions," said the report.
The local authority self-evaluation identifies many of the key findings of this inspection. However, the scale of delay for some children was not fully recognised by the local authority until it was identified by inspectors.
However, the early help offer has been strengthened, care leavers continue to receive a strong service and are well supported and key to the success of many areas of the service is the fact that workforce stability has significantly improved. Social work vacancy rates and staff turnover have reduced, and workloads are manageable. This is enabling social workers to undertake meaningful work with children and their families.
Inspectors graded the authority as requiring improvement to be good.
Regarding the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, the report highlighted:
- A range of commissioned interventions offer a timely, responsive and creative approach to early help.
- A well-established children’s hub (CHUB), including a wide range of partner agencies, has now been established, which facilitates positive and effective partnership working.
- Swift and effective triage within the CHUB ensures that concerns about children are responded to in a timely way.
- Parental risk factors associated with mental health, domestic abuse and substance misuse are clearly identified in assessments.
- Social workers in the complex care team know their children well.
- Contextual safeguarding is well understood and strong multi-agency partnership responses identify and intervene effectively to safeguard children and young people.
16- and 17-year-olds who present as homeless receive an appropriate response to their circumstances.
However, while many of the services that keep children safe are effective, the absence of management oversight and grip on several key child protection processes means that sustainable change is not sufficiently assured.
While assessments are mostly thorough, a high number of children are re-referred to the service or become subject to repeat child protection plans for the same presenting reasons.
When children are subject to pre-proceedings under the public law outline (PLO), there is a lack of management oversight of and grip on children’s progress.
Relating to the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, inspectors highlighted:
- The local authority has successfully developed an edge of care service, ‘Our Place’.
- For several years, Stockton has had a high number of children in care. Their self-evaluation accurately reflects the reasons why, and resultant actions are beginning to provide an appropriate alternative.
- Children in care are seen regularly by their social workers, who have long-term, positive relationships with them. Direct work is meaningful and life story work is of a good standard for all children in care
- Care plans are regularly reviewed and updated.
- Children’s physical and emotional health needs are well recognised and met.
- The care leaving team continues to offer a strong service. The number of care leavers in education, employment and training is improving and this is further enhancing their life chances.
- Personal assistants are committed to their young people and maintain regular and meaningful contact.
The report states that adoption timeliness is slowly improving from a low base. However, the previous inspection report published in May 2016 identified that procedures and guidance for placing children with connected carers were not understood or followed. This practice has not improved, and procedures have remained unclear.
Ongoing capacity issues within the fostering service have impacted on the timely completion of assessments of connected carers.
The high number of children in care has created pressures on the availability of suitable placements for children who have recently come into care.
In terms of the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, the report stated:
- The self-evaluation of practice strengths and weaknesses is mostly accurate.
- Since the last inspection in May 2016, senior leaders have concentrated heavily on improvements, including the early help offer and services to children on the edges of care.
- The ongoing recruitment of experienced workers, alongside a process of developing new workers through ‘grow your own’ and ‘step up to social work’, has resulted in the significant reduction in vacancy and turnover rates.
- Social workers spoken to were positive about working for Stockton.
- Case audits are undertaken regularly by managers at all levels and they suitably identify where practice could improve.
- Senior leaders are very open to external scrutiny. They actively seek and contribute to peer reviews to enhance their own learning.
- The director of children’s services (DCS) recognises that while there are positive service developments, there is more work to do to improve and embed the quality of social work and strengthen management oversight.
- Leaders are committed to ensuring that young people are influencing service development, and they have sponsored the ‘Big Committee’, a committee of young people who work with the council on issues facing young people in the town.
However, the report states that the current electronic system does not support senior leaders and managers’ understanding of their effectiveness or where they need to improve. Senior leaders are fully aware of this weakness and have implemented several workarounds to address the issue.
Management oversight of frontline practice has declined since the last inspection and is impacting on some children’s outcomes. Weaknesses in management oversight of achieving sustainable change within families mean that rates of re-referral and repeat child protection plans have increased.
Ofsted recommends that Stockton improves the timeliness in delivering children’s plans without delay across all services by generally improving management oversight and grip.
there should also be more effective tracking of children who are the subject of pre-proceedings work under the Public Law Outline (PLO) procedures and better recognition and approval of family and friends as carers under Regulation 24 arrangements.
All case work decisions should be made by qualified workers.
Furthermore, the quality and sustainable impact of assessment and intervention with families who are repeatedly the subject of referrals and plans needs improvement. there also needs to be clarity in supervision records about both positive and negative changes to children’s circumstances, and challenge from managers to any delay in agreed actions being achieved.