Significant progress has been made by Slough council and Slough Children’s Services Trust in tackling the deep-rooted problems which led to the service being judged inadequate in 2011, 2013 and 2015, Ofsted has said.
After a faltering start, senior leaders from the council and the trust now work closely together to deliver improved services for children. They have a clear and realistic understanding of the quality of frontline practice, including the areas for further development.
An increasingly strong culture of challenge, support and learning is helping to improve practice, the inspection of children's services found.
"Senior leaders in the trust have acted to strengthen management oversight and accountability over the last six to nine months. This is delivering improved results, with most managers now ensuring better oversight of children’s plans," said the report.
However, Ofsted warned that this is not yet translating into consistently good services or social work practice for all children. Managers are not yet effective in ensuring that all children’s plans progress at the pace needed, particularly where neglect is a feature in children’s lives, and this results in some avoidable delay for a small but significant number of children.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection requires improvement to be good. Inspectors highlighted:
- Children in need of help and protection receive a much better service than they did at the time of the last inspection.
- Although slow to establish, leaders in the council and the trust have now introduced a revised framework and strategy for early help.
- When safeguarding and child protection issues are identified, social workers respond in a timely manner.
- A daily multi-agency domestic abuse triage meeting effectively shares information and ensures that children living with domestic abuse receive a prompt and appropriate response to their needs.
- The quality of assessments has improved.
- Social workers and managers are rigorous in identifying and responding to child protection concerns.
- Significant progress has been made in strengthening work with families under the Public Law Outline (PLO).
However, although there have been real improvements, some children do not receive the right support at the right time. This is particularly evident for adolescents at risk of exploitation, children in private fostering arrangements and 16- and 17-year-olds at risk of becoming homeless.
Neglect is a key challenge for the partnership in Slough. The trust is not yet consistently intervening at an early enough stage when children experience neglect.
The trust’s response to children living in private fostering arrangements is not yet sufficiently robust, the report says, and when children go missing, they do not consistently receive timely return home interviews.
The trust and the council have identified that the response to young people who are homeless requires improvement. A joint action plan has very recently been developed to strengthen the effectiveness of response.
Ofsted says that the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers also requires improvement to be good. The report highlights:
- Since the single inspection in 2015, the quality of services for children in care has substantially improved. Although children now receive much better care and support, services still require improvement to be good.
- Social workers build meaningful relationships with children in care through regular visiting.
- Children’s assessments are of good quality, with their wishes and feelings carefully considered.
- When children return home, they are well supported.
- Independent reviewing officers are effective in supporting the progress of children’s plans.
- Since the last inspection, there has been a significant improvement in the number of children accessing health and dental checks and a strong focus on improving children’s emotional well-being.
- The virtual school has been transformed since the last inspection.
- When adoption is the plan for children, they receive an effective and timely service.
- Services for care leavers have improved significantly since the last inspection.
However Ofsted notes that while the vast majority of children in care in Slough live in safe, secure and stable homes, a high number of children live at a distance from their friends and families (more than 20 miles from home). This is reducing through concerted effort by the trust to identify placements closer to home but sufficiency of suitable placements remains a challenge, particularly for adolescents with complex needs.
The report also states that at the time of the inspection, a small number of care leavers aged 18 and over were living in bed and breakfast accommodation. These arrangements are time limited, risk assessed and carefully monitored, but remain unsuitable, and cannot adequately meet these young people’s needs.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families also requires improvement to be good. Ofsted said:
- Senior leaders in the council and the trust have taken determined action to improve the quality of services following the single inspection in 2015 which judged the service as inadequate.
- The partnership between the council and the trust has matured significantly and they now work effectively together.
- An increased focus on supervision and compliance with basic practice standards over the last six to nine months is beginning to deliver results.
- Significant financial investment has secured additional social worker and manager capacity in response to increased demand.
- Quality assurance and performance management arrangements have been strengthened since the last inspection.
- Staff morale is good; most staff feel well supported and training opportunities are broad ranging.
However, not all the actions arising from the inspection of the independent fostering agency in June 2018 have been pursued with sufficient pace by the trust. A targeted sufficiency strategy provides a cohesive framework for delivering improvements to the volume of placements for children in Slough. However, sufficiency remains a challenge. There is insufficient provision for the most vulnerable older children, including care leavers and 16- and 17-year-olds at risk of homelessness across the partnership. The independent fostering agency is working to increase the numbers of foster carers to meet local need but has not achieved its targets.
Ofsted recommends that in order to improve practice, Slough addresses the quality of children’s plans, so that they include clear measurable actions, with timescales for delivery and clarity about what will happen if concerns do not reduce.
The way strategy discussions are convened needs work, so that processes are clear and relevant agencies participate in initial decision-making.
The quality of assessment, planning and service provision for privately fostered children and homeless 16- and 17-year-olds needs improving as does the timeliness of initial health assessments when children come into care. The rigour of planning and coordination for children at risk of exploitation should also be addressed.
Slough needs to address the sufficiency of local placements to meet the needs of older children and for care leavers and should improve the stability of the workforce so that children consistently benefit from the opportunity to build positive relationships with their social workers.