Durham Council has taken swift and decisive action to strengthen services, Ofsted has said.
Pace has increased since the focused visit, and solid improvements can be seen in many service areas, including at the front door and for children in care. Firm foundations are in place to sustain and build on the improvements made.
"There has been a significant increase in workforce capacity and a restructure of children’s services, including a restructure of the senior leadership team. The new leadership structure has improved practice oversight, enabling leaders to better challenge weaker practice. However, management oversight, challenge and consistency of social work practice are not fully embedded in all service areas, including those for disabled children, those for children who are privately fostered and those for homeless 16- and 17-year-olds. As a result, some children are not always receiving help at the earliest opportunity," said the report. "Senior leaders and managers were not aware of some of these shortfalls until the inspection. However, they made plans to address them during the inspection."
Children in care and care leavers get a good service, and the quality of practice has improved since the last inspection.
Following the last inspection of local authority children’s services under the single inspection framework (SIF) in 2016, where the local authority was judged to be requires improvement to be good, there was a deterioration in the impact of some services. Substantial work to lay the foundations for positive change had not yet delivered the consistent impact required. The joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) in July 2018 found that multi-agency working and strategy meetings were areas requiring priority action.
A focused visit of children in need and those subject to a child protection plan in January 2019 demonstrated some improvements, but weaknesses remained and there was drift and delay for children, as well as in recording and management oversight. Since that time, the local authority has been determined to strengthen services.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection requires improvement to be good. Ofsted said:
- Children and families benefit from an extensive and well-developed early help offer.
- Most partners know how and when to contact children’s social care. The quality of referrals from partner agencies has improved.
- First Contact, including the multi-agency safeguarding hub, is well managed and provides an effective and timely response to contacts and referrals, ensuring that thresholds are applied consistently.
- The local authority and its partners take very seriously allegations of abuse or mistreatment by adults who are working in a position of trust with children.
- Prompt action is taken to safeguard and protect children who are at immediate risk of significant harm.
- While the local authority is still in the process of rolling out its preferred model of social work, social workers are beginning to make good use of it to identify risks and protective factors.
- The strength of the local authority’s and partners’ response to missing children and children at risk of exploitation is helping to reduce risks, disrupt the activity of perpetrators and protect children.
- The local authority takes seriously its responsibilities to children who are being electively home educated.
- When children go missing from education (CME), there is a timely response.
However, the report warns that while social workers are alert to the impact of neglect and are generally confident and assured in dealing with parental substance misuse, the social work practice model is not fully embedded, and, as a result, social workers and managers are not always sufficiently rigorous in challenging disguised compliance or are not always sufficiently resourceful in overcoming parental resistance. This particularly applies to children who are living with domestic violence.
Further, the quality of critical challenge provided by team managers, middle managers and child protection conference chairs is not consistently robust or always effective.
While most assessments are detailed and reasonably comprehensive, the quality of analysis is not consistently strong.
While leaders and managers have strengthened the responses to children, and these are robust, not all children receive a consistently good response to meet their needs, said Ofsted.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers is good. Inspectors stated:
- Most children enter care when they need to do so and live in appropriate and permanent placements that meet their needs.
- When care proceedings are issued, they are concluded within statutory timescales, and timely legal permanence is secured for children.
- Most children benefit from good early permanence planning.
- Children who have a planned return home from being in care are able to do so in line with their expressed wishes and an assessment of their needs.
- Children and young people benefit from access to effective advocacy.
- Children’s wider health and emotional and well-being needs are well addressed.
- Education outcomes for children in care at several key stages are typically above the national average.
- When placements become fragile, there is a good support infrastructure for carers and their families, including access to the supporting solutions (an edge of care service) and the Full Circle team.
- Timely decisions are made to secure permanence via adoption.
- The local authority is clear about its responsibilities to care leavers.
- The team around the care leavers is well tailored to the needs of individual care leavers.
- Care leavers are well supported to learn and develop their independence skills in order to help them to live independently and be more emotionally resilient.
However, the report warns that additional support for children with complex needs is readily available and is supporting placement stability. However, a small number of children still experience placement moves unnecessarily. In such cases, more effective matching and planning is needed. As leaders have recognised, sufficiency is a barrier to this cohort of children achieving permanence in a timely manner, and firm plans are supporting the improvement needed.
Comprehensive social work assessments inform children’s reviews and support detailed care planning. Well-chaired reviews provide effective challenge to prevent delays for children. However, not enough children have their plans for permanence confirmed at their second review. Firm plans are in place to address this.
When some children come into care, their initial and review health assessments are not timely. However, the reviews do result in effective support when needs are identified. Leaders are aware of this issue and are working with partners to resolve this.
Foster carer recruitment and training is child-centred, and the things that matter most to children are understood clearly by leaders and managers. However, sufficiency of carers remains a known service challenge and is being actively addressed through firm planning.
Most care leavers have an assessment and pathway plan. However, the quality of these is variable, with many needing updating. The more recently drafted plans are stronger, but still too many are not good enough, making it difficult to track care leavers’ progress, and for managers to hold workers to account for completion of objectives.
Despite these weaknesses in the assessment and planning, most care leavers are well supported by their social worker or young person’s adviser to make good progress. Changes of workers and transitions between most teams are sensitively managed, with workers focused on building relationships with care leavers as they coordinate packages of support. However, transitions for disabled children start too late, leaving families unclear about future support and services.
Leaders recognise that there is still more to do to ensure that young people have timely access to suitable accommodation.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families requires improvement to be good. The report states:
- Following the last inspection in 2016, there was a period where some services for children and families deteriorated. The JTAI in 2018 found that areas of priority action were needed in relation to the multi-agency response to children.
- The focused visit earlier this year found that although there was some improvement, weaknesses remained in relation to drift and delay, management oversight and case recording. Caseloads were high, and the restructure of children’s services was not fully embedded.
- There is a strong commitment to children’s services within the council, and this has been demonstrated through significant investment in increasing workforce capacity both at a managerial and social worker level. This has led to reduced caseloads.
- The restructure has now had more time to embed, and this is having a positive impact on practice.
- The introduction of a new electronic case recording system has been welcomed by staff and managers.
- Leaders were not aware of some of the areas of improvement identified at this inspection, including weaknesses in practice in the children with a disability team, private fostering and homeless 16- and 17-year-olds.
- Staff supervision and management oversight at all levels are not sufficiently challenging or reflective to improve the quality of social work practice further, and are not consistently effective in enabling staff to recognise deficits in practice.
- There has been improvement in some but not all areas identified at the last inspection.
- There are effective partnership arrangements and an improved and robust multi-agency response for children and families.
- The senior leadership team is open to challenge. Senior leaders have responded positively to critical challenge from Ofsted and external consultants, and the pace of change in some areas in the last nine months has been significant.
"The council has a strong commitment to children’s services. The council’s lead member holds the senior leadership team to account. She is well informed about service delivery. She is effective at using performance data, listening to the feedback from staff, children and young people and seeking the views of other committee chairs such as those of corporate parenting and scrutiny," the report concluded.
In order to improve, Durham should address the quality and impact of management oversight, including that of child protection chairs.
The timeliness of assessments and support for children who return home needs to improve as does the quality of children’s plans, so that they are time-bound, and include clear actions and contingency plans.
The response to disabled children, children in private fostering arrangements, and children who are homeless aged 16 and 17 needs improvement and the timeliness of foster carers’ reviews needs addressing.
Finally, Durham should improve the tracking and monitoring of children missing from education.
Durham County Council
Inspection of children’s social care services