Progress had been slow at Tameside since the last inspection in 2016, when services for children were judged to be inadequate, Ofsted has said.
However, the inspection of children's services found that more recently, significant changes in senior leadership have supported the adoption of a much strengthened ‘whole-council’ commitment to improving the quality and impact of services for children.
"This has not only been the case within the children’s services department but also more widely within the local multi-agency safeguarding arrangements and political leadership," said the report. "As a result, there has been a notable increase in the pace and effectiveness of service development. Leaders have an improved understanding of how well services are working for children and of their key priorities."
The report points to some significant improvements including a strengthened early help service through a new locality based model that is now serving most children well, a new multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) which is ensuring that referrals about children for whom there are safeguarding concerns are almost always dealt with quickly and appropriately, while an ‘edge of care’ team works intensively with families to ensure that children only come into care when they need to.
However, much progress, particularly in services for children in care, is very new and so impact is inevitably limited. The local authority is not providing the consistently good services for children that it aspires to.
Most social workers now have manageable caseloads, although a few still have caseloads that are too high which impacts on how often they visit children and on how effectively children’s plans are implemented. The frequency and regularity of management oversight and supervision has improved but is not consistently effective in ensuring the progression of support to children and families.
Across the board, Ofsted said that Tameside requires improvement to be good.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection,
- Although still developing, locality-based early help services are providing interventions that are improving children’s welfare.
- When children are referred to the MASH because there are concerns about their safety or welfare, decisions about thresholds for intervention and next steps are timely and are almost always well matched to presenting need and risk.
- When children are at risk of significant harm, strategy discussions, attended by statutory representatives from police, health and other relevant agencies, are held swiftly, and appropriate decisions are made.
- Once referrals about children have been assessed by the MASH, those that require a statutory response are passed to the local authority’s duty teams within 24 hours, or faster, if necessary.
- For a large majority of children in need of help and protection, social work assessment and intervention with them and their families is making a positive difference to their welfare.
- When children are at risk of sexual exploitation or are at risk as a result of going missing, intervention to address these risks is established and effective within duty and safeguarding teams.
- Management supervision and oversight is regular and provides guidance at key points in work with children.
However, the report stated that when children’s cases are passed between the early help hub and the MASH, recording of contact with families and information-sharing is not always as thorough as it should be.
Visits with children, assessments of children’s needs, and planning are not always progressed at the pace they should be. Social workers are mostly seeking children’s wishes and feelings, but the use of direct work techniques is not fully embedded in all teams’ practice.
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.
Support for disabled children is not always of good quality or progressed quickly enough. Staff vacancies and turnover have contributed to higher caseloads and a lack of consistency in work with children.
For the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, the report highlighted:
- Reductions in social workers’ caseloads mean that most children now receive regular visits from their social workers.
- When children in care have specific areas of vulnerability or risk, help and support is appropriate to their needs, although not always of a consistently high standard.
- Many children in care are supported by their foster carers and social workers to engage in hobbies and interests.
- Most children are living with experienced carers who are meeting their needs and are improving their outcomes, including those placed out of area.
- Once children are identified as being likely to benefit from adoption, social work input to achieve this and to match them with suitable carers is strong.
- A determined focus on improving the quality of work with care leavers has had a significant impact.
- Support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is effective.
- The children in care council (CICC) is a vibrant and energetic group, and the members are very positive about the activities they are increasingly involved in and the support that they receive from each other.
The report says that improvements to the quality and impact of services for children in care have been more recent and so have had less impact than improvements achieved in the services for children in need of help and protection.
Despite an increase in the number of social workers, staff turnover means that many children still experience several changes of social worker, and this limits their ability to build relationships of trust with their workers.
Life-story work is rarely undertaken with children in long-term foster care. When children in care have specific areas of vulnerability or risk, help and support is appropriate to their needs, but not always of a consistently high standard.
For many children, planning to ensure that they live in permanent homes that match their needs does not take place in as timely or as effective a manner as it should.
Until very recently, support, training and development for foster carers were key weaknesses in Tameside. This was recognised by senior leaders and the capacity and management oversight have recently been improved. Foster carers report feeling better supported, but important requirements for improvement, such as foster carer agreements and training opportunities to increase the individual skills and knowledge of foster carers, are not yet in place.
In terms of the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, Inspectors highlighted:
- The appointment of a new senior leadership team has brought a new focus and energy to improving the quality and impact of services for children in Tameside.
- Partner agencies have been successfully engaged by the local authority to help improve joint working at both the frontline and strategic levels.
- A focused approach to recruitment and retention and a commitment to increasing staffing capacity has meant that there has been a steady rise in the number of social workers who are permanently employed by Tameside.
- The local authority’s developing approach to ensuring that its staff have the right knowledge and skills is well considered.
- The local authority’s approach to recruitment, retention and staff development is thorough and energetic.
- A significant increase in the capacity of services for care leavers and a much keener focus on improving the services they receive and the outcomes they achieve have led to important improvements in this service.
- Strengthened performance and quality management systems are helping senior leaders to have a generally good knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses in frontline practice with children and families.
However, consideration of performance information by the corporate parenting board lacks a sufficiently sharp focus on understanding what the data means for children. It is as a corporate parent that the local authority’s support for children was previously most lacking in pace and aspiration both at the frontline and at a senior level. Services for these children are still not good enough. The role of IROs and chairs of child protection conferences in monitoring and quality assuring practice remains underdeveloped.
Ofsted recommends that Tameside improves the timeliness of achieving permanence for children in care. The challenge provided by senior leaders, team managers, IROs and conference chairs about the pace and quality of social work and placements for children in care needs work.
Tameside should address how consistently children’s wishes and feelings are used to inform assessments and plans.
Children’s experience of being able to develop a relationship with a consistent social worker who visits them regularly and makes sure their plans are progressed should also be improved.