Senior leaders in Hertfordshire are "restlessly ambitious" for the children, young people and families who depend on them for help and protection, care and support, according to Ofsted.
An inspection of children's services in Hertfordshire said children’s social care services continue to be well led, well managed and well run.
"Recommendations made at the time of the last inspection have been successfully addressed. With adult specialist workers embedded in family safeguarding teams, the local authority’s approach to ‘Think Family’ is mature and well developed. The help and protection that most children receive has improved since the last inspection and is now good," said the report.
Children in care continue to receive a good service, and the service that care leavers receive is outstanding. However, placement stability is still an issue and sufficiency continues to be a challenge.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers and overall effectiveness were all rated as good while the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families was rated outstanding.
With regards to the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, Ofsted highlighted:
- Early help services are well developed. The focus is on making sure that families receive an appropriate level of help and support as soon as issues and concerns are first identified.
- Early help is making a real difference to children’s and families’ lives.
- Partners generally have a good understanding of thresholds and referral pathways.
- Social workers and police officers work well together to protect children who are at immediate risk.
- The quality of partnership working, particularly in the multi-disciplinary family safeguarding teams, is a real strength.
- Social workers receive regular and effective supervision.
However, in a small number of cases, social workers and their managers had not achieved the right balance between children’s and adults’ needs and between support and challenge. Also, in a very small number of cases, managers have failed to provide the right level of challenge.
While 16-and 17-year-olds who present as homeless are given shelter and support, the needs of the most vulnerable are not always addressed appropriately.
In relation to the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, inspectors noted:
- Services for children and young people who are on the edge of care are effective.
- Most care plans are reasonably clear, specific and outcome focused.
- Over the past two years, there has been an improving pattern in attainment and progress of children in care.
- Robust arrangements are in place to safeguard and protect children who go missing from home or care, or who are at risk of being criminally or sexually exploited.
- Foster carers are well prepared, well supported and well supervised.
- The proportion of care leavers in meaningful education, employment and training continues to improve.
However, while most children who come into care do so because it is not possible for them to remain safely at home, the number of children who come into care in an emergency, with all the upset and distress that this can cause, is too high.
Furthermore, the proportion of children in care who are living outside of the local authority’s boundaries has increased and short-term placement stability continues to be a challenge. According to the local authority’s own figures, over half of children in care have experienced at least one move in the last 12 months, and a significant minority have had three or more moves.
In terms of the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, the report says:
- Senior leaders are conscientious in holding each other to account and 'have their finger on the pulse'.
- The local authority’s self-evaluation is open, honest, appropriately self-critical and essentially accurate.
- Senior leaders have developed strong and effective strategic and operational partnerships across a range of agencies and organisations.
- Senior leaders make astute use of hard data and soft intelligence to target their audit activity to best effect.
- Newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) are well supported and have protected caseloads throughout their assisted and supported year in employment. NQSWs talk very positively about the intensive training, support and supervision provided by Hertfordshire’s social work academy.
"Senior leaders have invested wisely in their workforce. The local authority’s approach to recruitment and retention has helped to deliver a settled and stable workforce," said the report. "The level of staff turnover has reduced significantly, as has the local authority’s reliance on agency staff. Comparatively low caseloads mean that social workers have the time and space to build meaningful relationships, and do purposeful work, with children and families."
In order to improve, Ofsted recommends that Hertfordshire achieves the right balance between support and challenge with all parents and consistently applying thresholds with adolescents.
Furthermore, the local authority should address placement stability and the disproportionate number of children in care who are living outside of the local authority’s boundaries.