Steady progress at Buckinghamshire

Buckinghamshire children's services has made steady progress in improving the quality of intervention when children are first referred to the multi-agency safeguarding hub, Ofsted has said.

Most children are receiving helpful support when they are first referred to children’s social care, but variable practice remains evident within both the multi-agency safeguarding hub and assessment teams, said the monitoring report of the authority.

"Leaders are making steady progress in improving the service to children when they are referred to children’s social care. The multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) provides a mostly effective response to children’s needs for early help and statutory intervention. Systems in the MASH are efficient, leading to timely and decisive action for most children," said the report.

"Considerable work has taken place to strengthen social workers’ and managers’ understanding of thresholds. This has led to more confident, timely responses for most children. However, for a small minority of children, strategy discussions are not always convened when they are needed. This leaves children in situations of unassessed risk of potential harm," it added.

Ofsted also highlighted that management oversight has been strengthened since the last monitoring visit, and social work caseloads have reduced. This is beginning to provide social workers with the conditions they need to better support children and families.

The monitoring visit was the was the third visit since the local authority was judged inadequate for overall effectiveness in January 2018. Inspectors looked at the quality of management decision-making in the multi-agency safeguarding hub and the application of thresholds for intervention, the quality, effectiveness and impact of assessment and planning in managing risk and improving children’s outcomes when they are first referred to the local authority, the arrangements in place to respond to children missing and at risk of exploitation and the quality and timeliness of supervision, management oversight and decision making, social work capacity and caseloads.

Inspectors highlighted:

- Action taken by leaders during 2018 to tackle poor performance in the First Response service, initially led to a period of instability and high staff turnover. This resulted in difficulties in allocating children’s cases for assessment during the latter part of 2018. Leaders have worked purposefully to respond to these shortfalls, leading to substantial improvements.

- The MASH provides a mostly effective response when children are first referred. Work to strengthen systems and increase efficiency has led to improvements in the timeliness of referrals being progressed.

- Considerable work has taken place to ensure thresholds are applied more consistently. This has included multi-agency training and reviews of ‘live’ cases with MASH staff. This has strengthened the quality of referrals from agencies, led to more consistent decision-making in the MASH and reduced the number of referrals that do not meet the threshold for children’s social care.

- Thresholds for early help are appropriately applied by managers in the MASH.

- Managers in the MASH ensure a timely and effective response to concerns regarding domestic abuse. The recently introduced daily triage meetings provide a forum for reviewing lower risk domestic abuse notifications from the police. These result in timely and appropriate decision-making about next steps, but no record is kept of these important decisions.

- Contact and referral officers in the MASH ensure that there is effective oversight of children who go missing.

- Considerable work has taken place to strengthen the strategic response to children missing and at risk of exploitation. The child exploitation team has recently been restructured to improve the oversight of children at risk of exploitation and to provide them with a more coordinated response.

- Leaders’ persistence in seeking to strengthen management oversight is beginning to deliver results. Supervision is taking place and the quality of management oversight has been strengthened.

- Although social worker and manager turnover remains high, leaders are beginning to see greater stability in the service. Where needed, capacity has been increased.

- Staff spoken to during the visit told inspectors that they enjoy working in Buckinghamshire. They report being well supported by managers, and that leaders are visible and approachable.

However, the report warns that although children and families benefit from a range of early help services, the early help service is under-developed. Performance information is too limited to inform an accurate understanding of the effectiveness of the service.

Workers in the early help Family Resilience Service provide a range of interventions to support children and parents. Not all intervention is effective in helping to improve family circumstances, as delays are evident in stepping a small minority of children’s cases up to social care when their needs escalate or their circumstances do not improve.

When children need protecting, the response is mostly effective, but the threshold for child protection intervention is not consistently applied. Although managers in the MASH recognise when children are at risk of, or have suffered from, significant harm, strategy discussions are not consistently held in a timely manner, which causes unnecessary delay.

Not all children who go missing are offered return home interviews and, when they are offered, they are not always completed. Those that take place are not always completed in a timely way. Leaders recognise that this is an area for improvement and are working to improve practice in this area.

Most children are visited regularly, but sometimes initial visits to children take too long and there can be gaps in visiting after initial intervention. This is an improving picture, with most managers closely monitoring performance to see if visiting is proportionate to children’s needs.

While most child protection enquiries are thorough and lead to appropriate decisions, the quality of recording of the child protection enquiry remains too variable, with insufficient analysis.

"The senior leadership team has a sound understanding of the improvements that are needed in children’s services and is steadfastly determined to improve the quality of services for children. Leaders are acutely aware of the importance of creating strong foundations to ensure that social workers and managers have the right conditions in which to carry out their work," the report concluded.

Third monitoring visit of Buckinghamshire children’s services

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