Services for children in Southend-on-Sea require improvement to be good, as was the case at the last inspection in 2016, Ofsted has said.
While senior leaders have made significant progress in some areas in improving the quality of practice, despite a challenging local context, there is more work to do.
"Leaders have concentrated heavily on strengthening the ‘front door’ multi-agency response to contacts and referrals, planning for children in need and services for vulnerable adolescents, following learning from a joint inspection," said the report. "
These services are now highly effective. However, progress has been uneven, and some improvements are not yet making enough difference for children."
A well-embedded performance management system has helped to sustain improvements in the timeliness of core social work practice, most of which is well matched to the needs of children. Senior leaders recognise that the quality assurance framework they have recently put in place is not yet providing them with a wholly accurate understanding of the quality of front-line practice or of whether children have better outcomes because of the help and support they receive.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection requires improvement to be good. Ofsted stated:
- While many of the services that keep children safe are effective, the inconsistent management oversight and grip on some key child protection processes mean that change for children is not always timely or sustained.
- The practice of undertaking statutory visits by MASH+ social workers to establish the need for an assessment in a small number of cases means that some children and their families are having to tell their stories more than once.
- The process of automatically re-assessing any family referred to the MASH+ within six months of social care involvement ending is not always proportionate to the presenting risk. Some families are subjected to unnecessary social care intervention when initial enquiries could have better established risks and informed a more appropriate response.
- Some child protection plans are not of a good quality. In these cases, children experience delays before receiving the level of help and intervention they need.
- Practice in pre-proceedings under Public Law Outline (PLO) work is inconsistent. Poor tracking by managers and delays in commissioning assessments hamper timely decision-making about applications for court orders.
- Referral pathways for homeless 16- and 17-year-olds are under-developed, resulting in an inconsistent level of response.
However, the report pointed out that children and their families benefit from a wide range of early help services in Southend which work effectively with families to promote children’s welfare and reduce risk. Initial responses to concerns about children at risk are prompt and thorough, and thresholds applied within the multi-agency safeguarding hub plus (MASH+)are proportionate and consistent.
The risks to victims and children affected by domestic abuse are well understood. Assessments are timely, and children and families are connected to targeted help and support during the assessment process. The majority of child in need planning is helping to improve children’s circumstances.
Most children with disabilities are well supported by their social workers, who understand their needs well.
Children at risk of exploitation experience highly effective help and support from a range of skilled practitioners within the Adolescent Intervention and Prevention Team (AIPT). When children go missing from home or care, they are consistently offered return home interviews. Although these are not always completed within the required statutory timescales, they are prioritised in line with the level of risk being presented.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers requires improvement to be good. Ofsted said:
- Most children live in placements that meet their needs.
- Wherever possible, children are matched appropriately to carers.
- Only a small number of children live a long way from Southend-on-Sea and for those that do there is no detriment in the quality of care and support they receive.
- The quality of the fostering service is improving, from a low base, following recent action taken by leaders.
- Children in care and care leavers get good support to keep themselves safe.
- Assertive action is improving educational outcomes for children in care.
- Children’s need for life-story work is clearly recognised within their care plans.
- There is effective planning for children to return home from care when reunification is in their best interests.
- Practice for children with a plan of adoption and for adoptive parents is an area of excellence.
- Care leavers in Southend benefit from strong relationship-based practice.
However, the report warns that the overall quality of care planning is not yet good. A small number of children have experienced a high number of changes of care placements without there being any learning from disruption meetings or any pause to improve the quality of matching children to the right carers.
Annual reviews of foster carers have not all been completed in time or to required standards. As a result, opportunities are missed to identify how carers will be supported to undertake ongoing training and development appropriate to their experience.
Inspectors saw many examples of children in care not having timely access to mental health and therapeutic support. In some instances, there were unacceptable waiting times of up to 30 weeks from referral to receiving a service. There is no dedicated pathway for children in care to access the locally commissioned mental health service for children.
Case records for children in care are too variable in quality. Too many records are either incomplete or delayed. This can hamper the ability of a new social worker, auditor or practitioner undertaking life-story work, or even a child accessing their records in later life, to gain a clear overview of the key events in a child’s life.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families requires improvement to be good. The report said:
- There is strong cross-party political and corporate support for children’s services.
- An improvement board has driven some service developments since the last inspection.
- Governance arrangements are effective, and the chairs of all the key boards meet regularly to plan together.
- Partnerships are a strength in Southend-on-Sea.
- Senior leaders understand the needs of the wider community and generally commission resources that are making a positive difference for children and their families.
- Leaders have made considerable progress since the last inspection in developing a reliable performance management framework.
- Senior leaders have increased management capacity since the last inspection.
- The social care workforce in Southend-on-Sea is stable and experienced, with lower than average numbers of temporary staff.
The report says a case model of restorative practice is being embedded, but is too recently introduced to have positively influenced the inconsistencies in quality of practice.
Progress in corporate parenting since the last inspection has been uneven. Senior leaders recognise that they need to be more ambitious in their expectations of outcomes for children in care and care leavers.
"Social workers told inspectors that they enjoy working in Southend-on-Sea, that they work in supportive teams and they feel valued by managers and senior leaders. Social workers see themselves as very much part of the community of Southend-on-Sea and are committed and motivated to get the best outcomes for children," said the report.
In order to improve services, Ofsted said Southend said managers’ and leaders’ should improve oversight, and evaluation, of the quality of frontline practice, and translating this into timely planning for improvements for children within their timeframe.
The quality of planning for children in need of protection needs addressing as does the oversight and challenge from independent chairs of children’s child protection conferences and children’s care reviews.
Finally, the timeliness and effectiveness of pre-proceedings under the public law outline(PLO) arrangements should improve, Ofsted concludes.
Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services