Changes in senior leaders, rising demand and challenges in recruiting social workers have hampered work to address the areas for improvement identified at the last inspection of Hounslow, Ofsted has said.
Senior leaders have put in place a range of strategies, including increasing the proportion of permanent social workers and reducing the reliance on temporary staff but many of these changes are too recent to have had a tangible impact.
"More consistent work with children at risk of significant harm is helping to keep children protected, and social workers are child-centred in their practice, but, overall, inspectors found that ‘front door’ services are not always timely or of a consistently good quality, particularly for children in need," said the report.
The chief executive and senior leaders acknowledge that limited progress has been made, and they are taking immediate and appropriate action to improve the quality of services for children and their families.
Since the last inspection in 2018, when overall effectiveness was judged to be good, but the experiences and progress of children in need of help and protection required improvement to be good, there have been several changes of senior leaders and other managers. A new and permanent director of children’s services is about to take up his post, and, together with other new appointments, will be expected to
accelerate the pace of improvement.
The focused visit looked at the local authority’s service that considers contacts and referrals, including decision-making in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).
- The MASH has continued to develop since the previous inspection, with the addition of co-located probation, housing, early help and youth offending staff contributing to information-sharing and decision-making.
- When presenting concerns do not meet the threshold for statutory services, the recently established early help hub within the MASH is helping families to access support.
- Children at risk of significant harm receive a timely response.
- Child protection enquiries are thorough and they are informed by sensitive direct work with children; they result in immediate safety planning.
- The vast majority of assessments are comprehensive and informed by direct work that captures the lived experience and views of children.
- Decision-making at the completion of assessments and child protection enquiries is proportionate and is based on a clear social work analysis.
- Since the last inspection, the offer of support, accommodation and care to young people aged 16 and 17 years who present as homeless has improved.
- An interim designated officer is providing effective management of allegations against professionals, and their work with the youth secure estate is a strength.
- Social workers told inspectors that they feel well supported by their line managers and have regular supervision and access to training.
However, decision-making in response to new concerns about children is not always timely. When concerns about children’s needs meet the threshold for social care, the duty arrangements in referral and assessment teams result in delays to some children being seen and the start of their assessment. For a small number of children, this means that concerns remain unassessed for too long, while other children do not receive help at the earliest opportunity.
Limited participation by health professionals in strategy meetings means that decisions about children at risk may not fully take account of their health and developmental needs. This was an area for improvement at the previous inspection.
The majority of child protection medicals are prompt, but there is insufficient liaison between social workers and the police to determine the action required when medicals confirm that children have been subject to physical abuse, the report says.
In the last 12 months, there has been a significant decline in the time taken to complete social work assessments of children in need. This is due to a combination of high caseloads, staffing instability, social workers prioritising children at immediate risk of harm and a lack of robust management grip. In a small number of cases, there is a significant delay in concluding assessments and a resulting delay in the provision of help and support to children and families. Management oversight is not robust enough to ensure that such work is always progressed with urgency.
Senior leaders are already implementing a range of appropriate actions to improve practice, including increased management scrutiny.
In some cases, multi-agency information does not always inform assessments, and social workers report that they do not always receive health information from GPs, the report adds.
The management and tracking of panel decisions to transfer families from social work teams to early help is not sufficiently robust. In some cases, risk assessments for children are incomplete or families do not engage with the new service.
"Leaders and managers at all levels do not have a wholly accurate overview of performance and the quality of practice. The recently developed Performance and Learning Board is having some success in securing improvement, such as with the timeliness of child protection responses. Unreliable performance data and case file audits that do not identify areas of weaker practice are hampering the Board’s impact. Senior leaders already have plans in place for improvement," the report concluded.
In order to improve, Hounslow should address the timeliness of responses to referrals and the timeliness and quality of assessments of children in need.
There needs to be better partner engagement in strategy discussions and the quality and effectiveness of management oversight and supervision needs improving.
The accuracy and effectiveness of performance data and case audits should also be addressed, the report concludes.
Focused visit to Hounslow local authority children’s services