Significant progress has been made in some areas of social work practice at Cheshire East council since the previous inspections. however, improvement is needed in other services to ensure that children receive a consistently good service, Ofsted has warned.
Since the single inspection framework (SIF) inspection in 2015, and the focused visit in October 2018, arrangements in the integrated front door have been strengthened, the scale and effectiveness of the early help services has improved, enabling more children and families to access timely and appropriate support, an ‘edge of care’ team works intensively with families and that children at risk of exploitation receive a robust service.
"While initial concerns are dealt with effectively and families receive a service at the right level of intervention, the subsequent interventions are not consistently good. Some vulnerable children’s situations are not improving quickly enough.
Management oversight and challenge are not fully embedded in all service areas, and the quality of social work practice is too inconsistent. There are avoidable delays in determining and implementing plans for some children, and not all vulnerabilities are fully recognised and addressed. Some children wait too long to enter care and experience a sense of permanence," the report said.
Children experiencing chronic long-term neglect, children who are privately fostered, and homeless 16- and 17-year-olds are not always receiving appropriate help. Care leavers needing emergency accommodation are not always placed in accommodation where they feel safe and have their needs met. Senior leaders and managers were not fully aware of some of these shortfalls until the inspection.
Efforts to improve foster carer recruitment have not had sufficient impact and some foster carers feel poorly supported, it added.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, which requires improvement to be good, inspectors highlighted:
- Children and families benefit from a comprehensive and well-developed early help offer.
- When needs or risks increase, cases are stepped up appropriately from early help to children’s social care.
- The arrangements in the integrated front door are well embedded, and thresholds are consistently applied.
- The arrangements in the integrated front door are well embedded, and thresholds are consistently applied.
- Where children and families may be at risk because of domestic abuse, the Cheshire East domestic abuse hub provides an effective 24-hour, seven-days-a-week response, underpinned by access to a wealth of intervention and support services. This has led to a decrease in families needing to be referred to MARAC.
- Most strategy meetings are timely, and information-sharing from relevant partners is considered carefully.
- Social workers are making good use of the local authority’s preferred model of social work to identify risks and protective factors.
- When children in need, including those in need of protection, are identified as being at increased need or risk, they are appropriately stepped up to higher levels of intervention.
- Children are seen regularly, and social workers speak knowledegably about their children and understand them very well.
- The quality of help and protection offered to children by the disabled children’s team is a strength.
- Children at home or in care who go missing, or who are at risk of exploitation, receive robust, well-coordinated multi-agency responses that reduce risks and help protect them.
However, pre-proceedings work to try to achieve positive change for children and to avoid the need for them to come into care is not consistently timely. Some children’s cases are managed within public law outline processes for too long without sufficient management oversight and review to decide whether alternative action needs to be taken to protect them. While no children were found to be at immediate risk, a small number of children were left in neglectful situations for too long.
Assessments are not of a consistent quality. While the majority are detailed and identify risk, in some cases this is not rigorously analysed, and the impact on the child is not fully considered. This lack of sharpness in assessments results in child in need and child protection plans that lack specificity.
In some cases when children in need, including those in need of protection, are identified as being at increased need or risk, there is a delay in reaching this decision due to social workers and managers over-estimating parents’ capacity to change. In some instances, social workers’ and managers’ decisions to step down cases are based on an over-optimism regarding parental change that is informed by perceptions of improved compliance, rather than any significant or sustained change for the child.
Furthermore, the report states that management oversight of frontline practice is not consistently effective. It does not always demonstrate that it is driving plans to ensure that actions are timely and that children’s life experiences improve within a timescale that is right for them.
It adds that the response to vulnerable children is not consistent for all groups of children. When young people present as homeless, there is not a sufficiently robust response to ensure that their needs are fully identified, that they are appropriately supported, or that they are made aware of their right to become looked after.
Regarding the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers which requires improvement to be good, Ofsted stated:
- When there are immediate safeguarding concerns or risks, the local authority makes good use of its legal powers to safeguard and protect children.
- Where children are placed with parents under a care order, assessments and support plans are appropriate.
- Children and families benefit from a responsive and intensive edge of care service, provided by the @act team.
- Most children are living in placements that are meeting their needs and helping them to make good progress, including those children placed out of area and in
- Care leavers are supported by personal advisers (PAs) who know them well and see them regularly, but the frequency of visits is not tailored to individual needs. Transitions between teams are sensitively managed.
- The local authority has strengthened its accommodation offer for care leavers.
- Support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is effective.
When risks are chronic rather than acute, the identification of risk and decisions to take children into care are sometimes too slow. This means that a few children remain in harmful situations longer than they should.
However, where children are placed with parents under a care order some children remain on care orders at home for too long.
The quality of assessments and care plans is not yet consistently good. Assessments are not routinely updated to reflect changes in children’s circumstances, and needs are not fully informing care planning. Written plans are not always sufficiently specific in identifying the child’s needs and the support necessary.
Consideration is routinely given to permanence planning from an early stage. However, in some cases this is not facilitated within timescales that are right for the child.
Sufficiency of in-house foster carers is a known service challenge. The number of approved fostering households has reduced and recent attempts to improve recruitment has not had the impact the local authority had hoped for. A significant group of foster carers have raised a series of concerns over a period of time and during the inspection about the support they receive from the local authority.
Inspectors found that foster carers were not always well supported and that, in some cases, working relationships were at risk of breaking down.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, which also requires improvement to be good, the report said:
- There has been significant improvement in practice in some but not all areas identified in the SIF inspection and the 2018 focused visit.
- There is a whole-council commitment to driving improvement for children and their families.
- The corporate parenting committee, safeguarding partnership, and scrutiny function provide appropriate challenge to operational services where deficiencies are highlighted.
- Strategic partnerships are mature and responsive to changing needs in operational conditions.
- Senior leaders are open to external scrutiny and respond positively to critical challenge. They use this to inform and direct improvement activity. However, this approach has not been comprehensive, meaning that some required improvements have not been identified or addressed.
- The local authority’s self-evaluation recognised some of the strengths and areas of improvement identified during this inspection. However, some areas of weaker practice found during the inspection were not identified in the self-evaluation.
- Management oversight and supervision in the organisation does not provide sufficient challenge or reflection to enable staff to recognise deficits in practice and improve social work practice.
- A strong training and development package and specific funding for additional staffing have enabled the local authority to increase workforce capacity and stability, reducing reliance on temporary agency staff.
"Some social workers have higher caseloads than the local authority would want. These are monitored regularly by managers. For a small number of social workers, the volume and complexity of their workloads has meant that they have to prioritise work, resulting in drift in progress for some children. The local authority’s approach to increasing the skills of its workforce is well established. Training is strong and valued by staff, and there is a clear and well supported career pathway," the report concluded.
Ofsted recommends that to improve Cheshire East needs to improve the quality, consistency and analysis of assessments, and the child focus of plans. Management oversight of cases in pre-proceedings, to avoid drift and delay for children needs addressing.
The authority needs to look at the response to children in private fostering arrangements, children who are homeless aged 16 and 17 years old, and care leavers who need emergency accommodation and the quality and consistency of support and engagement with foster carers needs improvement.
Finally Cheshire East should ensure consistent management oversight and supervision in the organisation to ensure that consistent, good-quality social work practice is in place.
Cheshire East Council
Inspection of children’s social care services