Services for children and families in Ealing have deteriorated since the last inspection in 2016, and now require improvement to be good, Ofsted has said.
A new electronic recording system, a change to the way in which contacts and referrals were handled and insufficient checks and balances led to work building up at the integrated ‘front door’. As a result, there were delays in assessing children’s needs, except for those children identified as being at immediate or potential risk of harm.
However, once referrals are accepted, the quality of practice improves, and some aspects of the service are working well.
"The quality of services for children in care and care leavers is variable. Some children have waited too long to come into care, but when in care, most live in secure and stable homes. They receive good support for their education, and their health needs are met well. Care leavers receive a high level of support with their education, training and employment, but the quality of their accommodation is inconsistent, and some care leavers do not feel safe where they live," said the report following an inspection of children's services.
Senior managers had already identified some of these concerns, although the impact of the weaknesses was not fully appreciated until the inspection. They are taking action to strengthen services and are determined to improve the experiences and progress of children.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection which requires improvement to be good, Ofsted highlighted:
- Since the last inspection, in 2016, services for children who need help and protection have declined. Increased activity combined with insufficient management oversight have resulted in delays for children in need, and in some statutory work not being allocated to social workers.
- The response to concerns for children out of normal office hours is not appropriately focused on their needs.
- When risks to children increase, managers do not consistently convene strategy meetings early enough to plan or review multi-agency interventions to protect children.
- Social workers in the multi-agency support teams have high caseloads, and this has impacted on the quality of their work with children.
- Visits to children are not always prompt or in accordance with their levels of need.
- Reviews for children in need are not frequent enough to support good manager oversight or to engage partners regularly in reviewing and updating plans.
- Pre-proceedings work is underdeveloped, and some children experience delay, as concerns about their welfare have not been properly escalated.
- The response to young people aged 16 and 17 who present as homeless is too variable.
- However, children and families who need early help benefit from an extensive range of targeted interventions provided by multi-disciplinary services.
Children at risk of significant harm are identified quickly and receive a timely response. However, a lack of ongoing management oversight results in some other children waiting too long at this point before sufficient information is gathered to inform next steps.
Children affected by domestic abuse are identified in a timely way, with good quality referrals from the police, detailing their contact with families, the report notes.
Most children and family assessments are thorough and include detailed consideration of children’s needs and family history, and focus on any risks to which children may be exposed. However, most take too long, leaving families with uncertainty.
Children’s plans are of good quality with the majority being realistic and clear about what needs to change. Most plans include specific and measurable activities that are tracked to assess progress.
Furthermore, disabled children and their families benefit from a comprehensive offer of support. Children vulnerable to criminal exploitation also benefit from multi-agency coordinated planning that helps to reduce risk.
In relation to the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers which also requires improvement to be good, inspectors highlighted:
- Services for children in care and care leavers are more variable in quality than they were at the inspection in 2016. This is most apparent in the care leavers’ service, where there is now a more limited range of suitable accommodation.
- For some children, the focus on finding suitable family members to care for them delays consideration of other options.
- Children in care reviews are timely but of variable quality. IROs provide oversight of children’s cases, together with appropriate consultation and followup of actions, but sometimes they do not provide sufficient challenge when children’s needs are not being fully met.
- Children in care and care leavers at risk of exploitation experience variable responses. Some children benefit from effective interventions tailored to reduce risk.
- However, strategy discussions are not always held early enough, and the coordinated response is therefore not always timely, leaving children at potential risk.
- A very small number of children are living with connected carers who have not complied with safeguarding checks. Although leaders know that this is unsatisfactory, efforts to resolve this have been unsuccessful.
- Some arrangements to support care leavers have deteriorated since the last inspection. Pathway plans are not seen by care leavers as useful documents as they are not always completed with them, nor do they necessarily reflect young people’s individual circumstances. Plans are not always regularly updated or appropriately shared.
- Housing choices for care leavers are too limited.
However, staff demonstrate strong commitment to Ealing’s ‘Brighter Futures’ model, with its ethos of keeping children within their families when it is safe to do so.
Children are well supported to return home to their families when it is in their best interests, and multi-disciplinary teams are effective in providing the help to achieve this safely, the report adds.
For those children who cannot return to their birth parents, there is a strong focus on permanence within the wider family.
Social workers show persistence in their family-finding efforts to achieve adoption for all children who need it, including those with complex needs. The majority of children benefit from effective care plans that are holistic and demonstrate a therapeutic and nurturing approach to their care.
Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people receive sensitive and prompt responses from the unaccompanied minors’ team.
Most children in care live in secure and stable homes. Senior leaders have strengthened the commissioning of local options to bring children back to Ealing so that they can be closer to family and friends. However, some children experience too many moves when they initially come into care, because matching is not always effective in ensuring that children are in the most suitable home.
Foster carers are positive about the quality and responsiveness of the support that they receive from their supervising social workers
Staff are aspirational for care leavers, many of whom are provided with a high level of support to engage in education or training and do very well. The leaving care service is in touch with the vast majority of care leavers, although the quality and regularity of that contact is variable.
Regarding the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families also requires improvement to be good, the report states:
- The quality of services for children has deteriorated from the good level demonstrated at the last inspection in 2016.
- The combination of turbulence caused by the new electronic recording system, the demands on senior managers as a result of commissioned improvement work with other local authorities, and increasing pressures within their own services have contributed to a reduction in management grip.
- Performance management systems and quality assurance arrangements have not been robust enough to provide senior leaders with effective oversight of children’s experiences.
- While some elements of supervision are reflective and child-centred, for other workers, supervision is less regular and does not always offer sufficient case management
However, the report states that senior managers have taken appropriate action to increase the number of social workers in the ECIRS and the multi-agency safeguarding teams. The volume of work is now being better managed, and once assessments are underway, the quality of service improves.
There is also a strong history of piloting and developing innovative services in Ealing, and leaders continue to offer an extensive early intervention and prevention service that is successfully delivering support to large numbers of children and families.
Cafcass and the judiciary are both complimentary about the quality of practice for children in care proceedings.
Furthermore, mature safeguarding partnership arrangements in Ealing help to build collaborative work, and this is enhanced by the engagement and involvement of young people.
Senior managers appropriately prioritise the recruitment of social workers. A comprehensive training offer is provided, which is highly valued by the workforce.
Effectively coordinated multi-agency responses are helping to protect children who are at risk of radicalisation, the report adds.
"Senior managers have fully accepted the findings of the inspection and are taking immediate and appropriate action to improve the experiences and progress of children," the report concludes.
Ealing should improve social work capacity and allocation of cases. The quality and timeliness of responses to referrals, including strategy discussions and child protection enquiries needs addressing, the report adds. The quality and consistency of management oversight and challenge by independent reviewing officers needs improvement.
Ealing also needs to address the sufficiency of accommodation, including the range of accommodation options for care leavers.
The quality and accuracy of performance reporting and quality assurance activities needs work and the quality of responses to children and young people who are at risk of being homeless, and children on the edge of care both need improvement, the report concludes.
London Borough of Ealing
Inspection of children’s social care services