Solihull MBC has made some progress in improving the quality of services for children and families since its inspection in 2016, Ofsted has said. However, services are not yet good and not all areas of concern identified at the last inspection have been addressed.
A strengthened front door multi-agency response and a reconfigured early help response are making a positive difference at an early stage for many families. Children who are at immediate risk are responded to quickly, and, in most cases, receive timely, effective interventions. Children who have a plan for adoption are adopted in a timely manner. Young people who are preparing to leave care or who have left care get good levels of support and guidance in preparation for their adult lives.
However, for some children, plans are not progressed quickly enough and, in a few cases, there is drift and delay. There is little challenge and reflection in the supervision of social workers, and this is a barrier to better practice.
"The local authority has not ensured that its quality assurance framework is sufficiently robust or that it provides an accurate view of practice quality. This means that it does not always know its weaknesses. Partnership working is not universally strong. Child protection strategy meetings are subject to delays, mainly due to a lack of police availability, and the local authority has yet to remedy this," the report said.
The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection requires improvement. Inspectors highlighted:
- Solihull has recently reorganised its early help provision, creating a family support service that undertakes assessments of need and provides families with help at an early point. This area of provision is a strength.
- All referrals for early help, statutory support and protection are made to a newly designed single front door, where they are considered by a stable group of team managers. Decision-making, understanding of thresholds for further work or stepping down to family support are appropriate in the majority of children’s cases.
- When children and families require further assessment of their needs, social workers in family support teams complete thorough and timely child in need and child protection assessments in most cases.
- Child protection conferences, core groups and child in need reviews are timely, and are well attended by partner agencies, parents and sometimes children.
‘Threshold visits’ are undertaken when children are not deemed to be at immediate risk and managers need further information in order to make a decision.
- If safeguarding concerns either continue or escalate, legal advice is usually promptly sought to consider whether pre-proceedings should be initiated.
- A largely stable and consistent workforce in family support teams, court and child protection teams allows children to build positive and trusting relationships with their social workers.
- The local authority has oversight of and information about children who go missing.
- Young people aged 16 and 17 presenting as homeless are not being made aware of their entitlement to be accommodated and receive S20 support.
- The designated officer service is effective in its response to allegations against adults.
However, the quality of referrals from partner agencies is too variable, and some referrals are poor. Children in need and child protection plans are variable in quality. Better plans are comprehensive, with a mix of tangible and practical actions that support children and their parents. Some plans are very lengthy and without timescales for actions to be completed. This can make it difficult for parents to understand exactly what they need to do, and by when, to improve their children’s lives.
Child protection case conferences use a scaling of risk model, but core groups do not, and this is a missed opportunity to be able to further measure progress in reducing risk.
A less stable workforce in the disabled children’s team means that it is more difficult for children to build relationships with social workers.
Solihull is currently remodelling its strategic and operational responses to child exploitation and missing children. At present, services are disjointed, making it difficult to provide an effective multi-agency response to child exploitation. For example, social workers must currently work alongside three different police teams to respond to different forms of child exploitation, making communication and collation of information more complex than is necessary.
Return home interviews are offered to the vast majority of children who go missing, but in many cases, these take place outside of the expected timescale of 72 hours. The service commissioned to undertake these interviews is not sufficiently creative or proactive in promoting children’s take up of these interviews.
The local authority has not had the capacity in recent years to respond to the increase in the number of children electively home educated (EHE). There is a backlog of visits still to be made, and, while the local authority has now responded to this issue with increased staffing, this backlog will not be dealt with until March 2020.
The awareness of private fostering remains underdeveloped. No annual private fostering report is produced, and the local authority and their partners have been too slow to develop this area of work, the report added.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers is good. The report states:
- Children who come into care in Solihull benefit from dedicated carers and social care staff.
- The vast majority of children live in good-quality, stable homes for as long as they need to be looked after. Stability for children in care is good and enhances the chances of long-term positive outcomes for children.
- Children are seen regularly by their social workers, who know them well. They are seen alone, and their views and feelings are considered in planning and decision-making that affects their lives.
- Highly trained and skilled family support workers in children in care teams deliver valuable therapeutic life-story work.
- Timely children looked after reviews are well attended by young people, who receive good support from advocates to ensure that their voices are heard.
- There is effective parallel planning for many children that ensures that adoption plans and most plans for long-term fostering are progressed without delay.
- All children in care benefit from regularly updated and reviewed health assessments. Care leavers receive their health histories, meaning that they have the important medical information that will help them as they enter adult life.
- Most children receive appropriate education provision, and their education needs are supported by education, health and care and personal education plans (PEP) plans.
- The service for young people aged 16+, care leavers and unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) is well developed and provides good outcomes for many young people.
- Pathway plans for young people are completed regularly and set individualised and appropriate goals.
- Social workers working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are experts in their field. They demonstrate extensive, in-depth knowledge of relevant legislation and are highly alert to, and curious about, the issues and vulnerabilities for this group of children and young people.
However, while all children in care have a care plan, these are not always updated immediately following a child’s review. This creates potential for delay in actions being taken to help and support children.
Timely children looked after reviews are well attended by young people, who receive good support from advocates to ensure that their voices are heard.
Recommendations from reviews are appropriate, but records from reviews are not written in a way that most children can easily understand. Where independent reviewing officers identify concerns, including drift and delay, steps are taken to escalate these concerns. These interventions are not always effective and, in some cases, have not led to a quick enough resolution of the issue.
Work to ensure that children who need permanence through special guardianship is not always pursued with enough pace or rigour. Formal matching of children to their long-term foster carers takes too long in some cases.
The fostering service is still working to resolve a legacy of shortfalls that are due to there being no permanent manager between 2017 and early 2019. Senior leaders acknowledge that the quality of management oversight and overall standards in the service are not yet good enough.
The fundamental skills to foster course is offered online but connected carers have not, as yet been made sufficiently aware of this.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families requires improvement. The report said:
- The local authority has made some progress in improving the quality of services for children and families since its last inspection in 2016.
- Senior leaders have developed and implemented some effective children’s services. These include the creation of a beneficial family support service that provides early help and an effective single access point at the front door.
- The local authority’s updated self-evaluation identifies strategic and service initiatives, as well as areas for further development.
- Leaders have been successful in developing and delivering good-quality services in some key areas.
- There is established partnership working between the police and social workers for children who are vulnerable to sexual and criminal exploitation and to going missing.
- Senior leaders have strengthened the children’s services workforce. Use of agency staff has reduced, and the stability of staff in post has increased.
- The local authority has both a positive relationship with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) and a good reputation with the local judiciary.
However, despite the local authority improving the quality of practice in some important areas, in other areas there is evidence of too much variability in both quality and timeliness. Some issues have not been resolved since the last inspection. The delay in convening strategy meetings persists, despite ongoing efforts by senior managers to improve the situation. There are still significant delays in the police responding to meeting requests, and, as a result, some children at risk do not benefiting from a timely partnership response.
For some children, plans are not progressed quickly enough and, in a few cases, there is drift and delay. For example, some children wait too long to become subject of special guardianship orders. There is little evidence that homeless 16-and 17-year-old young people are being told about or offered the opportunity of care. The recognition of private fostering remains undeveloped, with very low numbers being referred to the local authority.
Senior managers have implemented a quality assurance framework, but this is yet to realise its full potential to ensure learning and improve practice. Compliance by team managers to complete the desired volume of audits is poor, and senior managers have been slow to remedy this shortfall, the report said.
Evidence indicates that the service commissioned to provide return home interviews for children who go missing is not making determined or creative efforts to engage with children.
"There is an appropriate level of support for newly qualified staff. The local authority has ensured that staff overall have manageable caseloads. Staff are happy to work in Solihull, feel well supported and valued. They benefit from training opportunities," the report concluded.
Ofsted recommends that Solihull improves its quality assurance and audit arrangements to improve practice so that leaders are aware of strengths and weaknesses.
The timeliness of strategy meetings and inclusion of all relevant partners, including the police should be addressed. The practice and impact of ‘threshold’ visits on children and families should be reviewed.
The offer and take up and analysis of return home interviews following episodes of going missing needs improving and the clarity of children in need and child protection plans needs improvement so that parents and carers can more readily understand what is expected of them and why.
The timeliness of reviews of children in need of services at level 2 in the disabled children’s team should be addressed and Solihull needs to work on levels of awareness and access for connected carers to training opportunities that will enhance their skills in caring for children and in strengthening placements.
Timely progress is needed in the making of special guardianship orders where these are set out as the plan for permanence. Consideration should be given to the need for homeless 16- and 17-year-olds to be cared for, and to be made aware of that option, by the local authority.
Solihull also needs to improve the focus on and response to private fostering arrangements, the report concludes.
Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services