Variable quality of practice at Torbay

The senior leadership team has been strengthened at Torbay since the last monitoring inspection visit, Ofsted has said.

The appointment of additional interim senior staff and a decision to recruit a dedicated Torbay DCS as well as an independent commissioner are intended to drive the essential changes more quickly to protect and help children, said the fourth monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate for the second time in June 2018.

“Newly appointed interim senior leaders are very clear about the huge amount of further work that is required to secure minimum practice standards for all vulnerable children across the spectrum of services, from the ‘front door’ to care leavers. They are beginning to lay the foundations on which to build sustained change by setting out a clear and ambitious vision while simultaneously addressing immediate areas of concern. There is considerable political support, including financial investment to underpin wholescale change,” said the report.

However, while inspectors welcome the very recent accelerated pace of change, they share leaders’ concerns about the highly variable quality of practice. Too many children are still not seen often enough and wait too long for services. Children in need and child protection plans do not address the individual needs of children. Poor case recording is linked to the high workloads in the frontline teams and caseloads for social workers in SATs and SAFS are extremely high and need to reduce exponentially so that social workers have time to plan their work and build relationships with children. High numbers of agency staff at all levels in all teams increase the risk to implementing and sustaining change.

Due to the serious and widespread concerns identified during the three previous monitoring visits, inspectors revisited and re-evaluated the quality of help and protection provided to vulnerable children and their families in safeguarding assessment teams (SATs) and in the safeguarding and family support service (SAFS).

They also evaluated the recent changes to the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and the improved arrangements to help and protect sexually and criminally exploited children.

Inspectors found:

– There is emerging evidence of a coherent systematic approach to cultural change based on a thorough identification and analysis of the significant weaknesses and areas of strength.

– A review of the MASH, led by a newly appointed interim head of service, found that while decisions were timely, statutory thresholds were not fully understood or acted on.

– Audits found that there had been ineffective screening of children living in situations of parental domestic abuse, and of children who had been criminally or sexually exploited. The response to anonymous referrals was inconsistent, although new arrangements to track work and ensure that children receive the correct level of help are being implemented.

– Daily meetings with partner agencies to share vital safeguarding information have been established. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of children requiring a statutory assessment.

– Highly committed social workers report that they are well supported by accessible and visible managers who sit alongside teams; these colleagues noted that support from team managers is the reason that children’s services staff remain in Torbay. Staff morale is good.

– Improved quality in management direction at the point of allocation is helping social workers to understand what they need to do during the assessment period. As a result, the quality of some assessments is beginning to improve.

– Inspectors raised concerns about child protection procedures and child protection medicals not being convened out of hours.

– Most managers know the children who they are responsible for well although some management recording is weak.

– Routine supervision, including that for some newly qualified staff, is not frequent enough. This is partially explained by the high volume of work. For example, social workers who met with inspectors are too often responsible for over 30 children, and a small number are responsible for as many as 40 children. The appointment of two new teams in the SATs and SAFS is intended to reduce the very high caseloads.

– In most cases, risks are identified, but visits to see children are not always swift following referral. A high number of cases sampled show multiple repeat referrals and poor use of chronologies and historical information to assess risk to children.

– The quality of child protection and child in need plans is mostly poor and not specific enough to measure what needs to change for individual children. Long delays in accessing victim and perpetrator domestic abuse programmes adversely affect children and lead to avoidable delay.

– A recently appointed interim exploitation coordinator has introduced revised guidance and training for all staff to raise awareness about children going missing and about all characteristics of child exploitation.

– The recruitment and retention of staff continues to be a high priority and challenge for Torbay. Senior leaders, including the chief executive, are working diligently to ensure that Torbay is an attractive place to work, and succession planning for permanent senior staff is prioritised.

– At the time of this visit, 78% of staff in the SATs team and 43% of staff in the SAFS were from agencies. A comprehensive recruitment and retention strategy is being implemented. The deputy director is leading on enhanced support for newly qualified staff and the development of a social work academy. All newly qualified staff have protected caseloads and benefit from good training and support.

– Performance management systems are improving from a low base. A revised quality assurance framework and a new audit framework are welcomed by staff.

A recently completed self-assessment shows that leaders have a sound understanding of the key priorities for improvement and recognise the immense challenges they face.

“In summary, very recent changes and actions are starting to create a culture of high expectation and an environment in which understanding the child’s world is central to all activity and practice. The new leaders already know the service well. They are rightly very concerned about the drift and delay and about the failures since the last inspection to embed sustainable changes at every level. They also recognise that huge fragilities in the system remain due to the high volume of work,” the report concluded.

Monitoring visit of Torbay children’s services

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