Some services for children at Luton have declined since the last inspection and Ofsted has now rated it as inadequate.
"Widespread and serious" weaknesses mean that too many children in need and in need of protection do not receive the help they need at the right time. Limited management capacity, exacerbated by changes in senior leadership and increased demand, has contributed to the decline.
"A clear focus on transformational change at a strategic partnership level and recent activity to strengthen practice have put in place building blocks for improvement. In some service areas, such as those for children in care and early help, greater stability is helping the authority achieve a more positive impact on the quality of frontline practice," said the report.
"However, the pace of change has not been enough to address critical weaknesses in practice for children in need of help and protection. Leaders are not fully aware of the impact of these weaknesses on children. In particular, poor decision-making, delay and a failure to take decisive and authoritative action when needs or risks increase mean that some children are left in unassessed or in harmful situations for too long. Following the focused visit in 2019, the local authority made, and continues to make, strenuous efforts to improve the experiences and progress of children in care," the report added.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection was rated inadequate. Inspectors highlighted:
- Serious and widespread failures mean some children are exposed to potential or actual harm for too long and are not appropriately protected. The risks and needs of children are not sufficiently identified in the MASH or, subsequently, when children’s situations decline or do not improve.
- Thresholds are not applied consistently in the MASH. As a result, some safeguarding referrals are redirected inappropriately to early help services. In some other children’s cases, intervention that should step up from early help to children’s social care is prevented from doing so by the MASH.
- Caseloads in the assessment team are too high. As a result, there have been delays in some children’s needs being assessed and met. This is exacerbated by poor initial decision-making in the MASH; the seriousness of concerns for children is not always recognised, and subsequent visits to children are not always timely.
- The quality of plans for children in need of help and protection is too variable.
- The local authority is sometimes too slow to take decisive and effective action when concerns for children do not reduce or risks increase.
- The local authority’s response to vulnerable 16- and 17-year-olds who present as homeless is not good enough. There is too much emphasis on diverting these children away from statutory intervention, without an assessment of their needs or of whether they would benefit from being looked after by the local authority.
- Social workers receive regular supervision. However, management oversight and critical challenge are not sufficiently rigorous to address serious shortfalls in practice and ensure that children’s assessments and plans progress without delay.
Yet the report highlights that the local authority’s response to children at risk of radicalisation is a real strength. When female genital mutilation or forced marriage is identified as a potential concern, swift and authoritative action is taken to reduce the risk.
Good-quality return home interviews completed by the missing persons coordinator with children who have been or who go missing from home provide a rich picture of push-and-pull factors and associated risks.
Disabled children benefit from child-focused intervention and clear assessments of their needs. They are safeguarded effectively through timely recognition and response to risk.
More children and their families now benefit from early intervention as a result of work with partners to strengthen the early help offer. The Early Help (EH) service supports children and their families well, leading to improvements for children. Staff take decisive protective action when they recognise that children’s needs have increased and there are concerns for their safety. Once they are transferred to the family safeguarding teams, most children are seen regularly and at appropriate intervals. However, too many children experience repeated changes of social worker, the report warns.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. Ofsted found:
- When it is no longer possible for children to continue to live safely at home with their birth families, social workers make every effort to find suitable alternatives with family or friends, including with families overseas.
- In the last six months, the local authority has strengthened its approach to permanence. Persistent efforts are made to secure adoption for children where this is appropriate.
- Children have up-to-date, comprehensive health assessments, dental and optician checks, although initial health checks when they first come into care do not happen quickly enough.
- Most care plans for children in care are clear, specific and measurable. Children are encouraged to participate in or contribute to their reviews, most of which are timely.
- Increased capacity and stability within the looked after children team have improved the frequency of social work visits to children in care and mean they have fewer changes of social worker.
- Systems and processes for supporting young people missing from care are reliant on social workers referring to an independent agency rather than a dedicated person within the service, which is the case for children in need of help or protection.
- Most foster carer, connected carer, adopter and special guardianship assessments are comprehensive and insightful, but some are taking too long.
- A greater focus on early permanence is having a positive impact on some children. Permanency planning meetings are comprehensive, and child focused.
- Workers are persistent in achieving adoption when this is the plan for the child.
- An active and committed young people’s panel, the children in care council, has influenced service delivery, recruitment and training within the council.
- An increased focus on compliance means that the local authority is now in touch with the vast majority of its care leavers.
- Most care leavers are living in suitable accommodation, including staying put arrangements with their former carers.
However, most children who need to come into care do so in an unplanned way, and some should come into care sooner. This means that, for some, the right foster home is not available, and they experience an unnecessary subsequent move. Some children are still waiting too long for permanence to be achieved.
Professionals routinely use strengths and difficulties questionnaires to understand children’s emotional well-being, but it often takes too long for them to access relevant support if they need it.
Some children have experienced multiple changes of social worker, making it very difficult to have meaningful relationships with them. However, IROs provide stability and continuity for children and most children benefit from longstanding relationships with their IRO.
The report also found that when children go missing from care, they are not routinely offered an opportunity to talk to an independent person about why they went missing and the risks they may have been exposed to.
Children whose plan for permanence is not through adoption are not supported to gain an understanding of their life histories through life-story work. This gap means that children do not have the opportunity to fully understand and explore with a trusted adult why they cannot live with their parents. Leaders recognise this omission and have plans to address this soon.
For a period since the last inspection, a lack of marketing and recruitment activity reduced the pool of Luton adopters significantly and there is now a shortfall of adopters.
A very small number of particularly vulnerable 16- and 17-year-olds are living semi-independently in placements that do not meet their needs. Furthermore, care leavers who are struggling with their mental health and emotional well-being do not always get the help they need when they need it. Not all young people have easy access to their health histories or know about the care leaver offer.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families requires improvement to be good. The report said:
- The local authority is outward-facing and has sought external scrutiny and support via partners in practice to support improvements. This activity has highlighted poor understanding of thresholds across the partnership.
- Quality assurance activity and impact has been strengthened following the introduction of a new service director for quality assurance, practice and innovation post and subsequent investment in increased capacity.
- Good-quality performance information is available to support managers, but this is not always used effectively to drive better practice in teams.
- Leaders demonstrate commitment to their role as corporate parents. The lead member and young people speak warmly of each other and there is evidence of genuinely good relationships and care between corporate parents and young people.
However, while good-quality performance information is available to support managers, this is not always used effectively to drive better practice in teams. Senior manager oversight of pre-proceedings work has not been effective enough to consistently ensure that timely, decisive action is taken to reduce harm to children and keep them safe.
Financial investment has supported a reduction in caseloads across most of the service, but these remain too high in some teams. Staff turnover in the assessment team has led to incoming locum social workers being allocated sizeable caseloads almost immediately on arrival. This means that it is hard for some children to develop meaningful relationships with their social workers. The resulting lack of continuity contributes to delay and a lack of decisive action where risks for children are not reducing.
The recruitment and retention of social workers is a real challenge and is an area of key service and corporate focus. Turnover of staff is still high, but is beginning to reduce, and the local authority has been successful in working with some locum staff to accept permanent contracts.
Currently, the local authority does not have enough foster carers. In January 2019, remuneration allowances were brought in line with independent fostering agency rates. Since that time, the local authority has noted that carers are positively engaging and actively involved in marketing events.
Leaders have acted to increase frontline management capacity in order to improve oversight of practice. However, managers and child protection chairs are not consistently providing the right level of critical challenge and are not ensuring a more decisive response for some children, such as those in pre-proceedings. IROs are better at this and provide much stronger challenge and oversight in supporting the progress of children’s plans.
Ofsted recommends that Luton improves the identification and response to risk and need in the multi-agency safeguarding hub and the clarity of purpose and quality of practice during pre-proceedings.
The quality of child in need and child protection plans needs addressing as does the local authority's response to 16- and 17-year-old homeless young people.
The timeliness of initial health assessments for children in care should be improved and life-story work should be provided for all children in care.
Return home interviews for children missing from care need to take place and there needs to be sufficient local placements to meet the needs of children in care.
The environment in which care leavers meet their personal advisers needs addressing and care leavers’ should be able to access to their health histories and have an awareness of their rights and entitlements.
The rigour and impact of manager oversight should be improved to ensure that children’s plans are progressed, and that they are protected from harm.
The stability of the workforce and the number of changes in social workers that children experience needs attention and social workers’ caseloads, which are too high in some teams, need reducing.
Luton Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services