Evidence of improvement at Reading but practice remains variable

There has been evidence of improvement in most areas of practice at Reading children's services since the last Ofsted inspection.
A children's services inspection found that Reading children’s services were judged inadequate in 2016. Frequent, and often sudden, changes in the senior leadership team since then have hampered progress in improving services for children.
This, combined with the high turnover of frontline staff, has meant that improvements, when they have been made, have not always been sustained. Some children have experienced too many changes of social workers, which have contributed to delays in improving their circumstances or have led to children disengaging from their worker.
"Recent practice is stronger but remains variable. Early help services, which were a strength at the last inspection, continue to provide children with well-targeted interventions, and the establishment of the multi-agency hub has contributed to a reduction in the number of referrals to children’s statutory services. Senior leaders have rightly focused on strengthening the recruitment and retention of staff, caseloads are reducing, and there has been an increase in management capacity," said the report.
For some children, particularly those in private fostering arrangements, 16- and 17-year-olds at risk of homelessness, and children living with family and friends, the support they receive is not good enough. Since December 2018, services for children have been delivered by Brighter Futures for Children (BFfC). The company and council are working collaboratively, and appropriate arrangements for scrutiny and challenge are in place.
Ofsted said Reading requires improvement to be good. In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, Ofsted highlighted:
- Overall, services for children who need help and protection in Reading have improved since the last inspection.
- Early help services are a real strength in Reading. Early help assessments and plans lead to helpful, targeted interventions to support children and their families.
- The number of referrals to children’s services has reduced as a result of purposeful work with partners to ensure that thresholds for referral to statutory services are well understood.
- When child protection concerns are identified, including for disabled children, responses from social workers are mostly effective and swift.
- Most child protection enquiries are thorough and lead to the right actions to reduce risk to children.
- The quality of assessments has improved, but not all are completed in a timely manner.
- In recent months, visits to children have been in keeping with their level of need.
- Child protection plans are mostly effective and well targeted.
- Disabled children receive a good level of support that is responsive to their changing needs.
- Work before the instigation of court proceedings is improving.
- Close links and information-sharing are evident between missing and exploitation operational and strategic groups, and these serve to ensure that responses to young people are well coordinated.
- Reading has a diverse population and there is a good multi-agency understanding, and a timely response, to potential risks of female genital mutilation and honour based violence to ensure that children are safeguarded effectively.
However, the report warns that some significant areas for improvement remain, and, consequently, these services are judged to require improvement to be good. The quality of practice is variable. For some children, their circumstances aren’t properly understood or assessed, and plans are insufficiently detailed.
As the result of the legacy of weak practice, the number of children referred for a second or subsequent time is too high. Some children had not previously received the help they needed to improve their circumstances, and their cases had been closed too soon. A review of all children subject to child in need plans is currently underway to ensure that intervention is effective.
Inspectors identified a small number of children’s cases where a child protection conference had not been convened, and the subsequent planning for children was insufficient to meet their need. These children’s cases were reviewed during the inspection by senior leaders, and further action was taken to address the level of concern for a small number of children.
The quality of analysis in assessments is variable, and some assessments include strong analysis of risk and protective factors, as well as parental capacity to sustain change.
Changes of social workers have contributed to a loss of momentum and delay in progressing some children’s plans.
Many child in need plans are a list of actions to be undertaken, and the template used for recording plans does not assist social workers. Consequently, it is difficult to measure progress and to hold parents and professionals to account when outcomes are not achieved.
The pre-proceedings tracker is not used effectively to ensure that all children’s plans are progressed in a timely way.
Risk assessments are not as well used when young people are at risk from gang activity.
Private fostering is not well understood, and the number of private fostering arrangements is very low. There has been no activity by the company to promote the awareness of private fostering this year, and there is a lack of understanding of what constitutes a private fostering arrangement. Assessments do not always assess the needs of the child and the capacity of the carer to meet these needs. Visits to children are mainly at school. This means that there is limited opportunity to observe the quality of relationship with the carers and the arrangements for the child’s care.
A small number of young people aged 16 and 17 years old who present as homeless are placed in bed and breakfast accommodation, and not all are offered the support they would benefit from if they were children in care. Senior leaders have recognised that their response to young people who present as homeless is inconsistent and they are strengthening their response to ensure that young people are appropriately supported, the report added.
With regards to the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, inspectors highlighted:
-  Many children in care in Reading live in good homes that meet their needs well.
- Social workers build meaningful relationships with children in care through regular visiting. Social workers are persistent, particularly when children are ambivalent about engaging with them, and find creative ways to work with them.
- Assessments of children in care are comprehensive and clear. Care plans are mostly detailed and consider children’s wider needs.
- The time that children spend with their family and friends is carefully considered and informed by children’s wishes and feelings.
- Most children have the benefit of comprehensive annual health checks. Good attention is paid to their emotional health and online safety, as well as to their physical health.
- The virtual school is a strength and a strong advocate for children in care.
- Most children live in good-quality homes with carers who meet their needs and advocate for them.
- Plans for children to return home are timely, and purposeful work is undertaken to support the transition and ensure success. Life-story work helps most children living in long-term foster placements to understand their histories.
- Permanence, including adoption, is considered at an early stage. When adoption is the plan for children, they receive an effective service.
- An advocacy service and independent visitor service are commissioned via an independent provider. Although the service is in its infancy, the numbers of children accessing advocacy has doubled over the last six months. Children and young people speak positively of the support they receive.
- Arrangements to support care leavers have been maintained since the last inspection. Leaving care advisers and social workers know young people well and successfully keep in touch with most of them.
- All care leavers have pathway plans which are completed with them every six months, but these are not always reviewed in response to significant changes in the young people’s circumstances.
- Most care leavers live in appropriate accommodation and receive specialist support from a range of agencies.
- The rights and entitlements of care leavers are not consistently understood by young people or leaving care advisers, and some young people experience inequity in how it is applied, for example the provision of a laptop or funds toward gym membership.
However, too many children live too far from their family and friends, and do not receive initial health assessments quickly enough when they come into care. Not all care leavers receive their health history when they leave care, and there is a lack of understanding by staff and young people of care leavers’ rights and entitlements. As a result, the experience of children in care and care leavers is judged to require improvement to be good.
Some children, particularly those whose social workers are in the family intervention teams, continue to experience too many changes of social worker. Children told inspectors that this makes it hard for them to trust social workers, and that they don’t want to keep building relationships with someone new.
A small number of children do not come into care soon enough. When some children first come into care, the right foster home is not always available.
There are not enough local foster homes available to meet demand. Once children are matched with the right foster carer, these relationships are enduring, and many foster carers continue to support young people into adulthood. Children and young people told inspectors that they want to be able to live closer to their homes and friends and families.
Senior managers’ understanding, scrutiny and oversight of children living in unregistered settings is insufficiently rigorous. This has led to some children living in inappropriate arrangements that are unable to sufficiently meet their complex needs.
There is no active care leavers forum, which means that the capacity of care leavers to influence service development is limited. Attempts have been made to re-launch and re-energise the group, but this has been unsuccessful.
In terms of the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, the report said:
- The pace of progress following the inspection in 2016, which found children’s services inadequate, has been slow and inconsistent. Frequent changes of senior leaders, including the directors of children’s services, led to a ‘start again’ approach to practice improvement and workforce development. Leaders in the council, and subsequently in the company, have begun to work more effectively to tackle the longstanding weaknesses in services for children.
- A lot of time, energy and resources went into setting up the company arrangement, but this is beginning to deliver results. Partners now view the senior leadership team as responsive and visible.
- Leaders have a broad understanding of the service strengths and areas for improvement.
- The development and launch of the ‘One Reading’ early help strategy has been successful in aligning partners’ contribution to ensuring that children get the right help.
- Sufficiency of placements close to home remains a challenge, despite a targeted recruitment campaign.
- Performance management arrangements have been strengthened since the last inspection. Performance information is now readily available and is beginning to support managers to provide more effective oversight of day-to-day practice.
- Regular case audits, practice weeks, thematic audits and observations of social workers’ practice take place.
- The recruitment and retention of social workers remain real challenges. Turnover of staff remains high, although it is beginning to reduce.
"The regularity and quality of management oversight and supervision have improved, but are not yet consistently regular or effective in ensuring children’s cases progress in a timely way. Changes in social worker and in supervisor have hampered the progression of some children’s plans. Recent supervision training for managers has been welcomed and is beginning to have a positive impact on the quality of supervision," the report concluded.
In order to improve social work practice, Reading should address the quality of assessment, planning and provision for children in need, 16- and 17-year-old young people who are homeless, children living in private fostering arrangements and children living with connected carers.
The participation and engagement of the police in child protection processes needs improvement as does the timeliness of initial health assessments for children in care.
The number of local placements for children in care, the completeness and accuracy of foster carer records, and the quality assurance oversight of commissioned placement arrangements needs work.
Reading should ensure that care leavers’ have access to their health histories, and staff and young people’s understand care leavers’ rights and entitlements.
The impact of quality assurance processes on children’s cases needs improvement and Reading should improve the stability of the workforce to reduce the numbers of changes of social workers for children.
Reading Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services

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