There has been substantial investment and support from Middlesbrough council, peers and partners to improve services for children in the authority, Ofsted has said.
Middlesbrough local authority children’s services are actively addressing shortfalls in the provision of services to children and young people through a comprehensive programme of improvement. Their self-assessment accurately reflects where they are in their improvement journey and what more they need to do to improve quality and consistency of practice.
A focused visit last year of the ‘front door’ highlighted weaknesses in practice in relation to management oversight and decision-making, assessment timeliness and partnership working. Data analysis wasn’t sophisticated enough to allow the local authority to have an accurate understanding of the demand for services and to provide appropriate levels of staffing. The improvement plan needed to measure success in relation to how the lives and outcomes for children are improved.
At that visit, inspectors saw weaknesses in the quality of practice for children in need of help and protection. Since that time, the local authority has taken decisive action, including restructuring services and increasing capacity in frontline social work teams.
"During this visit, no cases were seen where risk was unassessed or not being managed at the right level. Social workers and managers were positive about the changes and the benefits to their work. Strengthened performance management and management oversight are ensuring improved compliance, for example work being completed within the timescales of the child," said the report following a focused visit of the authority where inspectors looked at the local authority’s arrangements for children in need and those subject to a child protection plan.
However, the quality of social work practice is inconsistent. Assessments do not have a sufficiently strong focus on the analysis of risk and what this means for children, plans do not sufficiently focus on children’s individual needs, and the child’s voice is not clear within assessments and planning.
The report highlighted;
- An increased focus on performance management and quality assurance has improved compliance, including completion of work within timescales that are right for children.
- Social work capacity has increased, and plans have been developed to address recruitment challenges and ensure a balance of experience across the workforce.
- Children and families receive a service that is proportionate to their needs, and thresholds are applied appropriately.
- Children are being visited regularly and in line with their needs and there is some effective direct work done with them to gather their wishes and feelings.
- There is effective multi-agency involvement and attendance at meetings to contribute to the child’s plan and to support families to make necessary changes.
- There is clear management oversight of casework and at key decision-making points.
- Children at the edge of care or at risk of family breakdown receive necessary support, including the involvement of wider family members to enable them to remain at home or within the wider family wherever possible.
However, the report said that while assessments are completed within a timescale that is right for the child and are detailed, cover the pertinent issues, and risks are appropriately identified, they are overly descriptive, with a focus on parental needs rather than the needs of the child.
Plans lack a clear focus on improving children’s circumstances and most plans are adult focused rather than focusing on how interventions should improve the situation for the child.
Plans are reviewed regularly, but ongoing progress in meeting needs and improving the outcomes for children is not clearly recorded.
Decision-making is appropriate, but the rationale for decisions is not always clearly recorded and does not facilitate an understanding of why decisions have been made. Supervision is taking place and is action focused. However, records do not reflect how managers ensure that plans remain on track and that the impact of the work with the child is considered. Contingencies are not clearly recorded should the current plan not secure the change needed.
"Social workers and managers spoken to were positive about working for Middlesbrough local authority, and the restructure (of children's social care) has been welcomed in this part of the service. Social workers report that caseloads are manageable, which allows them more time to plan and complete work with families, although there is some variability across the service," the report concluded.
Ofsted recommends that Middlesbrough improves chronologies to be concise and consider the impact of events on children’s lives and addresses the quality of risk analysis and identification of children’s individual needs within assessments. They should embed a model of social work practice to inform risk assessment and decision-making and to support consistency of practice.
Middlesbrough should ensure the voice of the child is evident in assessments and plans and improve the quality of planning and social work plans to demonstrate a clear focus on the child’s needs and the impact and outcome of interventions. Contingency planning should be included should outcomes not be achieved.