Improvement required at Luton children's services says Ofsted

Improvement is needed at Luton children's services, a focused visit of the authority by Ofsted has found.

The quality of social work practice and performance is too variable, and improving consistency remains a challenge, the focused visit which looked at the local authority’s arrangements for children in care, including disabled children, found.

"Social workers strive to help children in care to remain in placements which meet their needs, promote their education and provide them with stability. However, placement choice is often limited and some children, particularly adolescents, are more likely to experience frequent moves," said the report. "Challenges in maintaining a stable workforce are evident. Caseloads are too high in some teams."

Leaders recognise that performance is not at the desired standard to enable all children to achieve their best in their care. They have developed a coherent recovery plan and have secured investments to help improve services, but more action is required to increase the pace of improvement and ensure that the authority’s children's services are effective and financially sustainable.

Inspectors highlighted:

- Children come into care when it is in their best interests to do so.

- Significant efforts are made to continue to support them within their family networks and, when this is not possible, arrangements are made for them to be placed with alternative carers.

- Children’s reviews are timely. Independent reviewing officers (IROs) are visible and active and are often a consistent figure in children’s lives, providing stability and oversight for many when managers and workers have changed.

- The expertise and support of the virtual school is helping social workers plan well for children’s education.

- Carers are sensitive to children’s ethnic and cultural identities.

- Placements with brothers and sisters are appropriately considered and contact with family members is well supported.

- Leaders have established a sufficiency action plan to improve the volume, quality and range of placements available for children in care. However, the pace of progress needs to increase.

- New arrangements to track and monitor permanence plans are beginning to make an impact.

- Impressive work is undertaken by experienced and knowledgeable staff in the children with disabilities team.

- The voice of children and young people in care is recognised at the highest levels.

However, the report states that the pressures of finding suitable local placements has meant that almost one third of children are living in out-of-area placements, making it more difficult to ensure continuity in their education and to support their health.

The quality of assessments varies considerably. Some are detailed, comprehensive and well written, but many children’s assessments lack proper analysis and they do not fully consider the history. Children’s care plans are also too long, tend towards the general rather than the specific and are not clear about who is going to do what by when.

Pressure from high caseloads within the family safeguarding and 0–17 teams has resulted in delays in progressing some children’s plans. This has also resulted in children having work completed by different workers, making it more difficult for them to engage and form trusting relationships with staff during times of change and when they are most vulnerable.

Caseloads are too high for many social workers. This limits their ability to carry out all aspects of their work with children and their families to a high standard.

There is evidence of management oversight on children’s case records, but managers are not always providing enough critical challenge to ensure that assessments and plans are up to standard and that actions are followed through.

The local authority faces a substantial challenge to secure improvement and ensure consistently effective support for children. Leaders have made some progress in developing services and there is evidence of impact in some areas, although it is clear that weaknesses remain.

"Leaders understand service strengths and weaknesses well and are putting appropriate actions in place," the report concluded.

In order to improve social work practice, Ofsted recommends addressing the fact that too many children in care are experiencing multiple changes of social workers. High caseloads in some teams also need addressing.

Children have too many placement moves, the majority of which are unplanned and too many children have to live a long way from home, making it harder to sustain the continuity of their education, friendships and family ties. Luton should work on both these areas.

Finally Luton needs to improve children’s health needs which are not being identified and addressed quickly enough.

Focused visit to Luton Borough Council children’s services

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