A reduction in resources in Oxfordshire children’s services combined with increased demand for services has resulted in a decline in the quality of some services, Ofsted has found.
Oxfordshire children’s services was previously graded as good across the board in Ofsted’s last inspection in 2014. Yet efficiency savings resulting in a reduction in resources and “a significant rise in demand for services” in 2015-16 has impacted negatively on the quality of some services, particularly for children in need of help and protection.
“Senior leaders have taken rigorous action to respond to this deterioration. Significant additional financial investment, combined with a large-scale restructure in 2017, has led to an improved early help service, increased capacity in frontline staffing and an enhanced service for children in care. Consequently, at this inspection the overall effectiveness of children’s services is judged to be good,” said the report.
The impact of leaders on social work practice, the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers and overall effectiveness was judged to be good while the experiences and progress of children needing help and protection was graded as ‘requiring improvement to be good’.
The large majority of children in need of help and protection in Oxfordshire receive an effective service. However, not all children are consistently well served and a small number of children do not receive a response proportionate to their needs.
- Children and families are increasingly benefiting from a range of early help services. The creation of locality community support services (LCSS) ensures the delivery of a range of well-coordinated services.
- When children’s needs escalate, staff in the multi-agency safeguarding hub make appropriate decisions about the level of intervention required to safeguard children.
- Social workers know their children well and visit them proportionately to their needs.
- When children are at risk of harm, prompt action is taken to understand their circumstances and to protect them.
- Strong partnership working ensures an effective response to children at risk of sexual exploitation.
- The response to children who go missing from care is robust.
However, the practice of using duty social workers to oversee a small number of children’s cases, including a very small number of children on child protection plans, can lead to delay in progressing their plans.
The response to neglect is not timely or effective for all children and as a result, a small minority of children remain living in unsatisfactory situations for too long. When children’s circumstances do not improve, pre-proceedings are not always used early or proactively enough to manage risk.
Children in care and care leavers receive a good service. Despite pressures on the availability of placements, the majority of children live with carers who meet their needs effectively. The timeliness and quality of assessments of friends and family carers are not yet consistently good.
- Once the decision is made for children to become looked after, plans are timely and carefully overseen by managers.
- Social workers build meaningful and important relationships with children in care through their regular visits.
- Children live in safe and stable arrangements with carers who promote their interests and provide opportunities for new activities.
- When children first enter care, there is a strong focus on quickly finding the right permanent placement through effective matching and parallel planning.
- Care leavers benefit from developing meaningful relationships with personal advisers, who are conscientious and helpful advocates for children.
- Effective work takes place to ensure that care leavers have the help they need to make successful transitions to independence.
The report highlights that there has been a large increase in the numbers of older children entering care over recent years which has presented challenges in providing sufficient and suitable placements. Extensive work has taken place to address this, including a comprehensive needs analysis.
It also states that although the percentage of care leavers in education, employment and training is below that of those nationally, this is an improving picture, with more care leavers accessing opportunities.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families is good. The director of children’s services and her determined senior leadership team have worked resolutely to re-build the service. Increased capacity has reduced caseloads and pressure on frontline teams. Managers now actively monitor performance and caseloads through recently established demand management clinics.
- The local authority has rightly focused attention on establishing a strong, stable workforce, creating an environment for social work practice to flourish.
- A joint targeted inspection in 2016 identified issues with the application of thresholds by partner agencies and shortfalls in capacity. Leaders responded to those findings, increasing frontline staffing in the MASH and introducing an early help triage system.
- Corporate parenting is strong, led by an active corporate parenting panel.
Ofsted has made a number of recommendations for Oxfordshire to improve including the identification of the impact of the cumulative effect of neglect on children and the timeliness of interventions in response to children’s escalating needs. Furthermore, the authority should improve the timeliness and effectiveness of pre-proceedings work, including the early identification and response to concerns regarding unborn children.
The timeliness and quality of friends and family assessments needs work and Oxfordshire should improve the understanding of thresholds for early help to ensure that children do not receive unnecessary statutory intervention.