Challenges in recruiting social workers and managers and continued high staff turnover in Buckinghamshire is making it difficult to consistently ensure basic practice standards, Ofsted has said.
Progress is less evident in respect of services for children in care than it is in other parts of children’s services seen during previous monitoring visits, said inspectors following the fourth monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate in January 2018.
"There is evidence of limited improvements having been made to services for children in care since the last inspection. Work to improve the availability of local placements for children is beginning to deliver results. Independent reviewing officers (IROs) now maintain greater oversight of children’s plans. However, poor practice remains, which continues to have a negative impact on the timely progression of children’s plans and prevents some children from achieving timely permanence," said the report.
Some poor practice continues to have a negative impact on the quality of services to children in care, leading to drift and delay for some children. Some areas of practice are beginning to improve, for example the availability of local placements for children and the effectiveness of independent reviewing officers.
Children told inspectors that they continue to experience too many changes of social workers. This, combined with weaknesses in supervision and management oversight, has a negative impact on children’s experiences and on the timely progression of their plans.
The leadership team has an accurate understanding of the quality of services, and improvement activity is appropriately targeted.
- When children come into care, social workers and managers are thoughtful about trying to identify the right home for them. Most children live with families or in homes where they are well supported and cared for.
- Since the last inspection, work has been done to strengthen the response to unaccompanied minors when they first arrive in the area.
- Social workers visit most children with frequency that is appropriate to their needs Although, for a minority of children, visits are not frequent enough.
- Social workers focus appropriately on children’s educational needs. Personal education plans are completed in a timely manner, and the virtual school is proactive in providing comprehensive and rigorous oversight of children’s progress.
- Most children live with carers who meet their needs well. Care plans are reviewed regularly, and children participate as appropriate.
- IROs demonstrate far greater rigour in identifying and responding to shortfalls in practice than they did at the time of the last inspection. IROs’ scrutiny of children’s plans is now more evident in children's files. They challenge poor practice, and the systems for overseeing this have improved. However, this challenge is not always responded to, or acted on, by team managers.
- When children first come into care, there is a better awareness of the need to promote early permanence. Examples of effective and child-centred work are evident. Careful consideration is given to whether children can return to their birth families. Since the last inspection, senior managers have ensured better oversight of the day-to-day arrangements for children who return to live with their parents.
- Assessments of connected carers are thorough, providing the detail needed to inform good decisions. Children are supported to remain with carers, promoting their sense of belonging. Those children for whom adoption is their plan increasingly move to live with their adoptive families more quickly.
However, further work is required to increase the number of local foster families because too many children continue to live too far from home. Despite this, children who live at a distance from their family and friends are well supported.
There is further work to do to ensure that the transferring of children’s cases from the emergency duty team to the day team is consistently effective. Visits to these young people do not always take place in a timely way to ensure early assessment of risk and need.
Some purposeful direct work takes place to understand children’s views. However, this is not evident for all children who need it, and some wait too long to get help to understand their life stories and experiences. Not all children who would benefit from advocacy and independent visitors have access to these services.
The quality of practice remains too variable, with delays in recording evident. Case summaries provide a good overview of the child to enable workers to quickly understand their experiences. At the time of the last inspection, chronologies and assessments were not consistently being updated in response to children’s changing circumstances.
Children's health needs are assessed, but not always in a timely manner. Concerted effort by the partnership and the corporate parenting board has led to some improvements in the timely completion of health assessments, but this has not been sustained over time.
When children go missing, or there are concerns regarding potential exploitation, the response is not sufficiently robust. Return home interviews (RHIs) sometimes do not happen or they are delayed. When they do take place, they are comprehensive, and risk is assessed. However, information from RHIs is not used consistently to inform the assessment, or the child’s plan. Although some effective work takes place to respond to children at risk of exploitation, there is variability in the quality of practice.
The quality and effectiveness of care planning is poor. The quality of children’s care plans varies significantly and too many lack important details.
Not all children living in long-term arrangements have been formally matched with their carers. This means that there is uncertainty for children, which can impact negatively on their sense of belonging. At the time of the monitoring visit, leaders had already developed a plan to respond to these shortfalls, the report says.
The board is appropriately reviewing areas of practice, having moved from a strong focus on performance data in 2018. However, there is insufficient structure to focus the board’s activity, and no work plan, targets or delivery dates. It also lacks a focus on demonstrating what difference it makes in delivering improvements for children in care.
A tenacious and appropriately targeted recruitment campaign has had limited success in recruiting sufficient staff. Social worker turnover continues to contribute to some high caseloads and delays in implementing children’s plans.
"The implementation of the quality assurance programme has had a positive impact on some parts of the service. However, there has been insufficient focus on auditing cases from the children in care service. This is because resource has been focused on improving practice in those parts of the service where the greatest risks were evident. Team managers are not sufficiently engaged in audit activity, which hampers leaders’ work to embed the practice changes that are needed," the report concluded.
Fourth monitoring visit of Buckinghamshire children’s services