Stoke-on-Trent’s children’s services have worked persistently to improve services for children at risk of sexual, criminal and gang exploitation, Ofsted has said.
Since the last Ofsted inspection in 2015, inspectors noted that senior leaders and elected members in Stoke-on-Trent, together with relevant partner agencies, have also worked hard to improve services for children where there are concerns about them going missing from home, care or education.
“This group of vulnerable children benefit from well-coordinated targeted services, at the right level, from a variety of skilled and knowledgeable practitioners based with different agencies,” said the focused report.
The response to children who go missing from home, school or education and those who have been, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited is well coordinated, with evidence of effective multi-agency working and information sharing. The co-location of key staff enables highly effective gathering of information.
Children who go missing are identified quickly, with prompt and effective action taken to address absences. An externally commissioned service engages well with children to complete return home interviews, including for those children placed in Stoke-on-Trent by other local authorities. Concerns are escalated and if necessary are presented to the multi-agency child sexual exploitation and missing panels, where appropriate safeguarding action is taken.
Out of hours, emergency duty team (EDT) working jointly with the accomplished placement support team plays an active role in responding to and supporting this vulnerable group of children and their families when they are in crisis.
However, Ofsted warned that workload pressures for managers and staff in children’s social care present the greatest challenge. While staff are extremely positive about working for Stoke-on-Trent children’s services, and morale and staff retention is high, social work caseloads are too high, with the majority of staff working at capacity.
Although no young people were found to be at immediate risk, inspectors questioned the appropriateness of social workers – including newly qualified social workers who do not have a protected caseload – being expected to provide 30 vulnerable children with extremely complex needs with a consistently effective service, warning that it is “not sustainable”.
Effective workforce planning and recruitment mean that children’s services have a stable and experienced workforce, and this enhances consistency for children and their families.
“Stoke-on-Trent council continues to be an outward-facing local authority trialling different ways of working. For example, a project in partnership with six schools, ‘Better Together’, provides supervision for designated teachers, reducing the number of referrals to children’s social care,” said the report.
Stoke-on-Trent should address the continuous allocation of high numbers of cases to staff in social work teams and, in particular, work allocated to newly qualified staff needs to be commensurate with their level of experience and expertise.
Actions arising from the monthly supervision of cases need to be recorded clearly, within a prescribed timeframe, and routinely reviewed and evaluated by managers.
The insufficient capacity of managers and ‘pod’ administrators to routinely record decisions and case discussion needs to be revised, the report concludes.