Progress in improving services for children in Southampton since the last inspection in 2014 has been uneven and too slow, Ofsted has said.
Some children benefit from skilled interventions and direct work that reduces risks to them and improves their daily lived experiences, but many do not. The overall quality of social work for children who are the subjects of statutory plans and who are looked after by the council is not consistently effective.
"Inspectors alerted managers to a small number of children who had not been adequately safeguarded. The frequency and regularity of management oversight and supervision of social workers has improved, but many frontline managers do not concentrate enough on the impact and progress of direct work with children in improving their safety and well-being. Some young people leaving care are inappropriately placed in bed and breakfast arrangements," the report said.
Applying consistent and appropriate management decisions of incoming contacts and referrals concerning children in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) has been difficult. This challenge was amplified by a very high and unexpected increase in referrals that commenced approximately a year ago and persisted until autumn 2019. This surge in referrals resulted in a substantial increase in the volume of children referred to undergo statutory assessments, and in the numbers of children subsequently placed on children in need plans. Nevertheless, most children and families now receive a prompt and proportionate response to contacts made to the MASH. However, more work is required with partner agencies to improve the appropriateness and quality of referrals, particularly from the police.
Substantial improvements have been made in services for care leavers and in developing an effective, comprehensive and integrated network of early help and prevention services. As a result, more children and families receive skilled help quickly. Disabled children, and children who go missing and are at risk of exploitation, receive effective help. Support for children on the edge of entering care is more effective. Senior managers have retained a largely stable and relatively experienced establishment of frontline social workers.
In terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, which requires improvement to be good, Ofsted said:
- A comprehensive, integrated early help and prevention service provides effective and timely support to children and their families.
- Most children and families receive a prompt and proportionate response to enquiries and referrals to the MASH.
- Responses by social workers to children at immediate risk are mainly prompt and rigorous. Concerns for children’s safety and welfare arising out of hours are also addressed quickly and proportionately.
- Multi-agency strategy discussions are held swiftly when initial risks are identified; children are seen promptly and decisions are well evidenced. Timely medical examinations are arranged when required.
- Children who undergo assessments and receive support from a range of specialist teams benefit from thorough evaluations of their circumstances and skilled and creative interventions.
- Many children are supported to attend, or have their views represented and heard through a ‘champion’ at child protection conferences.
- Arrangements to manage allegations and concerns regarding professionals and volunteers working with children are timely, comprehensive and effective.
- Arrangements for vulnerable groups of children who go missing and who may be at risk of exploitation are well developed and effective.
- Disabled children in need of help and protection are well supported through an effective multi-disciplinary team.
However, the report notes that a large increase in referral decisions made in the MASH over recent months has resulted in lengthy delays in completing assessments. The quality and type of referrals made to social care are not always appropriate or well informed, particularly those from the police.
The quality of assessments and social work reports for child protection conferences reports is mixed: weaker assessments are not always easy enough to understand for families and children, are often significantly overdue and do not portray the voices and experiences of children clearly enough. Evaluations of risks, protective factors and strengths are superficial and feature poorly evidenced recommendations.
Chronologies are routinely compiled and offer some sense of children’s histories, but many are out of date and do not highlight major changes and decisions.
A small number of children wait too long for pre-proceedings to be started or are held in the pre-proceedings phase for too long. However, the majority are timely and appropriately concluded.
Some social workers in the assessment and protection and court teams (PACT) do not always fully appreciate the accumulating risks to children arising from domestic abuse, parental mental ill health and substance misuse.
The frequency and purposefulness of visits to children is also mixed. Some children are not visited in accordance with timescales, or are seen by duty social workers who are unknown to them due to changes in their allocated social workers. These features significantly impede the quality of social work relationships with children and the progress of work.
Notifications of children living in private fostering arrangements to the local authority are often late, indicating a lack of awareness from some universal services.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. Ofsted said:
- Most children who come into care are placed in suitable settings.
- Visits to see children, including a substantial number placed at a long distance from the local authority, largely adhere to their care plan requirements and most children are seen alone.
- Children’s permanence plans are considered at their three-month reviews, and a permanence panel has recently started to meet to ratify plans and explore whether all potential options have been considered.
- Assessments of the capacity of parents to care for their children, completed by a specialist assessment team for care proceedings, are well informed and provide a detailed understanding of parents’ and children’s histories as well as a balanced analysis of risks and their impact on children.
- Children in care who go missing and may be at risk of sexual and other forms of exploitation, receive responsive services from knowledgeable staff in the MET team.
- ‘Adopt South’, a new regional adoption agency, provides Southampton’s adoption arrangements. Recruitment of adopters meets the needs of children waiting and adoption assessments are of a good standard.
- Personal advisers (PAs) strongly support the needs and well-being of care leavers through purposeful and timely visits, and their views are well reflected in case records.
However, decisions to look after children are not always timely and not all are underpinned by updated assessments of their circumstances. Care proceedings take too long, and both the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the district family judge report significant concerns about the timeliness and quality of social workers’ evidence. A small number of children experience continued harm as opportunities are missed to safeguard them when risks increase.
A lack of sufficient local placements means that some matching, particularly for vulnerable adolescents, is resource-led rather than child-led, resulting in some children living in settings a long distance from Southampton.
Some children in care have too many changes of social worker, further compounded by changes to their independent reviewing officer (IRO). This makes it difficult for them to form lasting and trusting relationships.
Most children’s reviews are held on time, but the quality of many minutes and care plans are not sufficiently detailed or specific, making children’s progress difficult to measure, the report said.
The sufficiency of placements to meet the diverse needs of children in care remains a significant challenge, and the local authority received fewer enquires to foster in 2019 than the previous year, it added.
Most pathway plans are completed with the young person, but the format of the plans is not user friendly. The quality of the plans is mixed, but most are of an acceptable standard and some are of a better quality.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families also requires improvement to be good. The report stated:
- The director of children’s services (DCS) and her management team have worked hard to address the consequences of very high workloads for social workers in the assessment and PACT teams. At the point of the inspection, social workers’ caseloads had substantially reduced and were largely manageable.
- Senior leaders value external evaluations of their services, and more recently these have featured reviews of the effectiveness of decision-making in the MASH.
- Senior managers have a realistic assessment of the standard of practice across the spectrum of services.
- A practice improvement group and themed auditing programmes are well targeted on improving critical areas of practice, including children affected by neglectful parenting.
- Despite recent intense workload pressures for social workers, particularly in the assessment and PACT teams, senior leaders have worked effectively to retain a predominantly stable and experienced cohort of frontline social workers.
- Senior leaders and politicians have launched a wide range of initiatives for children in care, demonstrating energy and zeal in their corporate parenting roles.
However, inspectors highlighted that progress in improving services for vulnerable children has been intermittent since the 2014 inspection. Services for children in need of help and protection and for children in care still need improvement to be good. Young people leaving care now receive good support, but too many have been inappropriately placed in bed and breakfast provision..
Senior leaders contend that a significant rise in levels of poverty over a four year period in more economically deprived wards of the city has been a primary cause of increased referrals through the MASH. However, they have not explained why a reported four-year trend in escalating deprivation triggered such a marked and relatively sudden increase in referrals at a particular point in that cycle. Leaders and managers also acknowledge that inconsistent decision-making in the MASH was also a significant contributory factor.
The local authority’s self-assessment describes numerous improvement activities, but could be strengthened by a more incisive evaluation of the quality and impact of core frontline social work with children and families.
The quality of work with children in the assessment and PACT teams is too inconsistent, and risks to children from parental mental ill health, domestic abuse and substance misuse are not always fully understood and responded to with enough urgency.
"Many social workers regularly access a broad range of learning and development activities, and some were able to describe to inspectors how these programmes have subsequently developed their practice skills. An array of shorter learning workshops on important learning themes emanating from audits and serious case review recommendations are routinely provided for frontline workers. Social workers in their assessed and supported year in employment are supported well, and many remain in Southampton," the report concluded.
The report recommends that Southampton should ensure that social workers need to build longer term uninterrupted relationships with children so that their plans are progressed.
There should be better management advice for social workers on how to undertake direct work with children and regular reflective discussions on their progress. The quality of assessments and plans need to improve to ensure that all children get the right help quickly and that its impact is clearly measured.
Decision-making in the MASH should consistently adhere to local threshold guidance and children should not experience unnecessary statutory assessments.
The use of bed and breakfast arrangements for care leavers aged 18 years and above and children aged 16 and 17 years should be discontinued.
The widespread and inappropriate use of child safety agreements with parents in circumstances when children’s exposure to domestic abuse is a primary safeguarding concern and should be addressed immediately, the report concluded.
Southampton City Council
Inspection of children’s social care services