Services for children in Lewisham continue to require improvement overall, according to Ofsted.
The inspection of children's services at Lewisham found services for children in care have deteriorated since the previous inspection in 2015, when they were judged to be good.
"Internal and external evaluations of children’s services in 2018 have resulted in widespread and fundamental changes. This work is being overseen by an improvement board, underpinned by strong political and corporate support and a re-invigorated senior management team. Senior managers are clear about the changes that are required, and the pace of improvement has accelerated since the appointment of the director of children’s social care in September 2018," said the report.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection requires improvement to be good. Ofsted highlighted:
- Most children receive a timely service at the point of referral and there have been some improvements since the focused visit in September 2018.
- The co-location of police, health and education partners within a confidential space and the introduction of daily information-sharing meetings have increased partner confidence and enhanced the understanding of children’s needs when they are referred for help.
- Appropriate and timely action is taken on referrals regarding children who are suffering or are likely to be suffering significant harm. This includes children who need a service out of hours. However, for some children who managers deem to be at lower risk, decision-making takes too long.
- Child protection enquiries are timely and children are seen promptly.
- Timely screening of police notifications leads to prompt recognition of domestic abuse.
- Children in need and subject to child protection plans are regularly visited by social workers, who know their children very well.
- Social workers feel well supported by their team and their managers.
- Services for 16- and 17-year-olds at risk of homelessness are strong.
- Disabled children in need of help and protection benefit from effective services.
- When children and young people are identified as being at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation, appropriate action is taken to reduce risk.
- Staff are tenacious in tracking and following through all reported cases of children missing education.
However, the report warns that early help services remain underdeveloped, despite this being a recommendation at the previous inspection. When children do receive a service, the assessments are weak and do not include basic information, such as the reason for the assessment.
The response to children and families at risk of domestic abuse is not sufficiently robust and the options for support are not clear.
The quality of assessments is variable. A structured tool is used well in stronger assessments to understand risks, strengths and protective factors. In weaker assessments, there is too much description and insufficient analysis.
While assessments are undertaken at an appropriate point for unborn babies, the quality is inconsistent as they do not always include a complete chronology of family history to inform risk assessment and decision-making.
Further, child protection and child in need plans are not sufficiently detailed and do not help families to understand what needs to change to improve circumstances for their children, or what will happen if these changes are not made.
Supervision and management oversight are not consistently regular and there is limited evidence of reflective practice. Managers and social workers describe informal and important conversations which are not recorded. Supervision actions are not always specific, time-bound or challenging, and follow up and monitoring of progress for children are poor.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. The report stated:
- Most children come into care in a timely way, and thresholds for entry to care are clear.
- Children benefit from a wide range of appropriate placements where their needs are mostly well met, although permanence is not always secured in a timely way.
- Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children receive an effective service, and their individual needs are well considered.
- Children in care are visited regularly by social workers who know them well, although this is not always captured effectively in case records.
- The well-targeted work of the ‘dream, achieve and believe’ team, a collaboration of the virtual school and child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), is having a strong impact on improving children’s social, emotional and mental health.
- The adoption service is effective and the processes for recruiting and approving adopters are timely.
- The fostering service is improving from a low base and the leaving care service is improving slowly.
- Most care leavers live in suitable accommodation and there has been a rise in the number of 19- to 21-year-olds in education, training and employment. This includes an increase in the number of young people attending higher education beyond A level.
However, staff are not always clear about the difference between a family arrangement and a ‘connected carers’ placement. This means that the suitability of the placement is not fully assessed in accordance with statutory guidance. Plans are in place to improve practice, but it is too early to see the impact of these.
Many children in long-term foster placements, sometimes for many years, have not been matched at panel. Inspectors found examples of children who had not benefited from a sense of permanence, or whose placements had broken down.
Additionally, life-story work is underdeveloped, limiting children’s understanding of why they are in care and why they are not able to live with their families.
When children are placed at a distance from the local authority, notification takes place to ensure that host local authorities are made aware of the children placed in that area. However, notifications are not always timely and there is no consultation with host authorities before children are placed which is a weakness.
While plans for children in care demonstrate monitoring, oversight and escalation by independent reviewing officers (IROs), the impact is limited in many cases.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families also requires improvement to be good. Ofsted stated:
- Leaders and managers are implementing widespread improvement activity and whole-system cultural change, supported by an improvement board chaired by the lead cabinet member following a number of internal and external evaluations in 2018.
- The pace of improvement has significantly accelerated since the appointment of the director of children’s social care in September 2018 and the establishment of the improvement board.
- The judiciary and Cafcass commented positively on the effectiveness of professional relationships and the responsiveness of staff.
- A recently introduced strengths-based social work model is ensuring that children are increasingly at the centre of practice. Practice standards are being developed following on from this work.
- A recent audit of decisions at key transfer points across the system has provided the local authority with assurance that threshold decisions are accurate, and that most children are receiving services at the appropriate level of intervention.
- The electronic case recording system has been redesigned and now provides a range of useful performance information.
However, despite some improvements, the electronic recording system is subject to frequent system failures, which impact on the ability of staff to record effectively and to complete their tasks in a timely way. This means that records may not be up to date, recording takes a disproportionate amount of time, and performance information may be inaccurate.
Senior managers are aware that commissioned services such as early help and placements for children in care are not consistently delivering effective services for children and their families. Further work is being undertaken to ensure that the right services are in place to meet the needs of children in Lewisham.
Additional social work capacity has reduced caseloads, although these are still too high in some areas. Reducing caseloads has enabled social workers to build stronger relationships with children and undertake more direct work.
The training and professional development of social workers have not received a high priority. However, more recently there has been an appropriate focus on developing the workforce so that they can provide better quality basic social work.
Newly qualified social workers are well supported during their first year in employment and have protected caseloads and regular supervision.
Ofsted recommends that Lewisham improves early help services, together with partners, so that children and families receive timely and appropriate help when needs or concerns are first identified.
Services for children and families when domestic abuse has been identified need work and the quality and consistency of social work practice in assessment and planning needs improvement underpinned by high-quality supervision and oversight.
Recording systems for the oversight of allegations against professionals and carers need addressing as does the quality of recording, supported by a stable and reliable electronic case recording system.
Ofsted should improve services for children in care, including achieving permanence, completing lifestory work and consultation with other local authorities before placing children at a distance. Practical support and the provision of health histories should also be provided for care leavers, Ofsted concludes.
London Borough of Lewisham
Inspection of children’s social care services