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Ofsted praises improved stability in workforce at Darlington

A stable and motivated workforce has been established at Darlington borough council, according to Ofsted.

A focused visit of the local authority's children's service found that since the last Ofsted inspection in March 2018 - when children's services were judged to be 'requires improvement to be good' - a stable and committed senior leadership team combined with strong political support has been successful in establishing and maintaining a stable and motivated workforce.

"Leaders have a realistic understanding of the strengths and areas for improvement and this is reflected in their action plan. They recognise that there is more to do to ensure that the help and support provided to all children in need of help and protection result in sustained improvements in their lives," said the report.

Inspectors considered the local authority’s arrangements for children who need help and protection, in accordance with the Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Services framework. Specifically, inspectors looked at the local authority’s arrangements for children in need and those subject to a protection plan, including children receiving help and support from the disabled children service, the Life Stages team.

Performance data is comprehensive and quality assurances processes are showing signs of improvement.

In particular, inspectors noted:

- In urgent and high-risk situations, progress has been sustained and children are seen quickly to ensure their safety.

- The timeliness of child protection conferences, core groups and child in need reviews continue to be sustained.

- Independent reviewing officers (IROs) have become more effective since the last inspection and appropriately challenge social workers and team managers to help progress plans and reduce delay for children.

- Committed workers in the children with disabilities team (known locally as the Life Stages team) know their children well and have a good understanding of how their disability impacts on their lives.

- A newly established ‘keeping families together’ service became operational in January 2019, providing intensive support to those children who are on the edge of care. To date, outcomes for children receiving this service have been very positive.

- The revised performance management and quality assurance framework now includes regular learning audits, peer reviews, direct observations and feedback from parents and children, thus enhancing senior leaders’ understanding of performance.

However, the report states that the quality of children’s assessments, the quality of social work practice and the quality of direct work undertaken with children is variable.
Frontline management oversight is frequent but is not consistently providing clear direction or challenge to social workers. Although staff now receive regular supervision, managers are not yet consistently using this to steer case progression through the setting of clear and specific actions with timescales.

Children’s plans are mostly detailed, but some overly focus on adult issues rather than what these issues mean for children.

Senior leaders closely monitor social workers’ caseloads. While improved workforce stability is enabling some progress towards their stated target of 18 cases per social worker, they are yet to achieve this for all social workers.

The report praises the improvement in workforce stability. "The vast majority of managers and social workers are now permanent and there is minimal reliance on agency staff, who are used only to cover maternity or sickness leave. Feedback provided by staff during the visit was unanimously positive about working in Darlington. Staff were very motivated and reported feeling well supported and valued by managers at every level. Staff feel listened to and appreciate the training opportunities available to them, which helps enhance their practice."

In order to improve, Darlington should focus on the consistency and quality of assessments and plans, the consistency and quality of direct work with children, including regularly seeing children alone and clarity of recording in respect of the issue of consent to undertake assessments.

Quality assurance, performance and audit processes need to focus on the quality of practice and the impact that practice is having on children’s lives while management oversight and supervision needs improvement.

Focused visit to Darlington borough council children’s services

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