Wokingham requires improvement to be good, says Ofsted

Children's services at Wokingham require improvement to be good, Ofsted has said.

The report outlines that last summer, Wokingham children’s social care services experienced a rapid rise in demand for services, which, combined with instability at the leadership level, and a high turnover of social care staff, led to a deterioration in the quality of services for children.

"The duty, triage and assessment team was at breaking point. Elsewhere in Wokingham, children and families were experiencing multiple changes of social workers and there was extensive evidence of drift and delay. A focused visit in November 2018 concluded that at that stage, while new senior leaders had developed a clearer understanding of areas for improvement and had redesigned the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), the situation remained fragile," said the report following the inspection of children's services.

"Six months on, the position has improved. Senior leaders have managed to achieve a degree of stability. There is a sense of renewed optimism among managers and staff. However, the quality of social work practice is still too variable," it added. "Too many children and families are still not getting the right level of help and protection, careand support they need when they need it."

Regarding the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, Ofsted highlighted:

- The duty, triage and assessment (DTA) team is more effective than it was at the time of Ofsted’s focused visit in October 2018.

- Two-way communication with the emergency duty team has improved since the focused visit.

- Prompt action is taken to protect children who are at immediate risk of significant harm.

- Child protection enquiries are generally thorough.

- Most assessments are detailed, comprehensive and timely.

- Most child protection conferences are well attended and well chaired.

- Social workers understand, and take appropriate action to negate or reduce, the risks to which children who are living with domestic abuse and/or parents who misuse drugs or alcohol and/or have mental health problems are exposed.

- Children who go missing from home or care are routinely offered good-quality return home interviews (RHIs).

However, early help is not fully developed. When needs and risks begin to emerge, other agencies are quick to contact children’s social care. Good engagement with schools is helping to improve children’s experiences and progress. However, the quality of referrals received from partner agencies is variable.

The re-referral rate has increased and is high which indicates that the local authority is still not always getting it right first time.

Child in need and child protection ‘safety plans’ are generally less impressive than the danger statements and safety goals on which they are based.

The high turnover of staff has had a negative impact on the quality of help and protection provided to children. It has contributed to a lack of continuity and a loss of momentum, resulting in a kind of ‘start again social work’. Too many children and families have had to cope with repeated changes of social workers, making it difficult for them to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with them. It has also contributed to drift and delay in planning for some children.

The high turnover of staff has also had a particularly debilitating effect on the disabled children’s team (DCT). As a result, some disabled children and their families in need of statutory social work are not being well served. Senior leaders have appropriately accelerated their plans to address the team’s fragility.

Senior leaders recognise that they need to strengthen their response to young people who present as homeless to ensure that the type and quality of accommodation, and the level of support provided, are always appropriate. This is one of a number of issues that are due to be picked up in the course of a cross-departmental housing summit planned for the very near future.

In terms of the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers, Ofsted said:

- When children come into care, the local authority’s commitment to helping them achieve permanence is tangible.

- Most assessments are detailed, comprehensive and clear.

- Cafcass and the judiciary speak positively about the timeliness and quality of court reports and assessments provided by the local authority before, and during, legal proceedings.

- Despite the pressure the connected persons team is under, the viability and special guardianship assessments they undertake are generally timely, and of a high quality.

- Care planning is thoughtful and creative.

- Although placement choice is limited, most children live in stable placements that meet their needs.

- Good attention is paid to children’s physical health and emotional well-being, irrespective of whether the child or young person is living in Wokingham or out of area.

- Social workers are particularly good at not letting go of, and keeping open, channels of communication with parents and families, even when there are no plans for children to return to live with them.

- Foster carers talk positively about the quality and responsiveness of the support they receive from their supervising social workers.

- The regional adoption agency (Adoption Thames Valley) is delivering well for the small number of Wokingham children whose plan for permanence involves adoption.

- The regional adoption agency (Adoption Thames Valley) is delivering well for the small number of Wokingham children whose plan for permanence involves adoption.

- Care leavers are routinely informed of their rights, entitlements and health histories, although this is not always clearly recorded on their case files.

However, the experiences and progress of children in care are variable and are partly dependent on who their social workers are and where they are based. Those whose social workers are based in Here4U, the local authority’s children in care and care leavers team, are generally very positive. A largely stable staff team means that children are more likely to enjoy meaningful relationships with their social workers. The experiences and progress of children in care whose social workers are based in the disabled children’s team or one of the three long-term teams tend not to be quite so positive. This is largely a product of competing demands on social workers’ time and, until very recently, high staff turnover.

While there are plenty of examples of children in care and care leavers’ influence on the design and development of services, the reach and influence of the children in care council are currently quite limited. This is now being addressed. Further, some foster carer records are either incomplete or not up to date. Lack of management grip means that not all foster carers have completed or maintained the necessary training to ensure that they have the right level of knowledge and skills to provide the best possible care for children and young people.

For the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families, inspectors highlighted:

- Since her appointment in November last year, the director of children’s services (DCS) has succeeded in establishing a permanent senior management team in children’s social care. She and her senior management team have a good understanding of strengths and areas for development, but readily admit that through their self-evaluation and audit work, they ‘are still discovering things’.

- With five DCS post-holders, three chief executives and three leaders of the council over an 18-month period, the level of turnover at a senior leadership level in Wokingham is almost unprecedented.

- Strategic partnerships are being refreshed.

- Throughout all the upheaval of the last 12/18 months, the local authority’s preferred method of social work has been a constant, providing a welcome structure and a much-needed element of continuity.

- The local authority is making progress in developing a comprehensive performance culture.

- Senior leaders have succeeded in reducing the size of social workers’ caseloads, but the continuing turnover of staff in the disabled children’s team and in two of the three long-term teams means that the benefits of having more manageable caseloads have yet to be fully realised.

- Action has been taken to strengthen the local authority’s approach to recruitment and retention, but it is too soon to fully evaluate the impact of this.

- Staff, including agency staff, have good access to training. This includes a two-day introduction for all to the local authority’s preferred method of social work, followed by an intensive five-day workshop.

- Newly qualified staff are well supported during their assisted and supported year in employment.

However, while the local authority generally acts as a responsible corporate parent, senior leaders have recognised that the corporate parenting board (CPB) needs to be overhauled.

Ofsted also raises concerns about the accuracy and completeness of some children’s case records. Some case files are incomplete while others are not up to date. This, it says, is partly a product of the level of turnover of managers as well as social workers. It also has implications for the accuracy and reliability of performance management reports.

The local authority is still in the process of strengthening its approach to quality assurance. The case management audit tool has also been revised to make it more inclusive and easier to use.

While there is no doubt that there are some talented and able managers at the frontline, the quality of management oversight and level of critical challenge that managers provide are not consistently good.

"Poor performance is no longer tolerated in the way it might have been a year ago when, by their own admission, some managers were ‘grateful’ just to have people in post," the report concluded.

Ofsted recommends that Wokingham improves the stability of the workforce in the disabled children’s team and the three long-term teams and the effectiveness of child in need and child protection plans.

The quality and effectiveness of the social work support that disabled children and their families receive requires improvement as does the level of critical scrutiny, and quality of supervision, provided by frontline managers.

The oversight and impact of the corporate parenting board also needs addressing.

Wokingham Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services

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