The Executive Director of Children’s Services will provide the Panel with a verbal update in relation to the Ofsted focused visit to Children’s Services on 26 & 27 May 2021.
The Executive Director provided the Panel with a presentation in relation to the Ofsted Focused Visit to Children’s Services that took place on 26 and 27 May 2021. A copy of the Ofsted letter, dated 15 July 2021, detailing its full findings from the visit, had been circulated with the agenda prior to the meeting, for information.
To provide context to the focused visit, Ofsted’s overall aim was “How has England’s social care system delivered child-centred practice and care within the context of the restrictions placed on society during the pandemic?” For Middlesbrough, this meant how this was delivered whilst continuing to improve.
The focused visit used the same methodology as for the November/December 2019 inspection, looking across the whole of Children’s Services. The visit was undertaken by four Social Care Inspectors and one Education Inspector, who were ‘on site’ for two days, however, prior to being on site, Children’s Services supplied requested documentation and performance information and key personnel were also interviewed.
In relation to Covid, the strategic findings were as follows:-
· Leaders invoked their major incident plan swiftly and effectively (corporately).
· A framework for identifying and monitoring vulnerably children in their communities was established.
· Opportunities for different ways of working were brought about across the Council as well as revitalising partnerships.
· Weekly communications meetings with strategic partners were held to establish multi agency pathways – for example Domestic Abuse pathway (this had been nationally evaluated), and school networks.
· Successful progress on much of the Improvement Programme but some elements inevitably effected by Covid.
The findings in relation to Covid from a practice perspective were:-
· Some Social Workers were creative and persistent in their engagement with children despite restrictions imposed by lockdown.
· Staff had benefitted from Covid-safe working practices and technology to support engagement with children and families.
· Despite the challenges of last year, staff reported feeling supported and liked working for Middlesbrough and understood the vision for change.
· The numbers of Electively Home Educated (EHE) children increased during the pandemic, however, Children’s Services had effective systems in place to monitor electively home educated (EHE) children.
In terms of Leadership, Ofsted found that Leaders were positively engaged in a comprehensive programme of improvement and introduced:-
· Audit to Excellence Framework – a comprehensive plan measuring quality of practice through auditing.
· ‘Non-negotiables’ Practice Standards – expectations of how Social Workers should work using core standards.
Ofsted also found that Children’s Services had:-
· Appropriately prioritised recruitment and the development of the Workforce Strategy.
· Recognised the variability in practice which was not meeting their own expectations regarding quality of practice.
· Did not yet have a sufficient understanding of children who were missing education. (This applied to a small cohort of children)
The Panel was informed that the main overall findings were:-
· Demand for Children’s Social Care Services had increased over the last year.
· The MACH had continued to improve.
· Caseloads were reducing but remained too high for some Social Workers.
· Children were seen regularly and direct work was making a demonstrable difference to their lives.
· Workers were persistent and built good relationships with children so that interventions were more effective.
· Personal Advisers maintained regular contact with care leavers.
· There was effective partnership work to identify exploitation risks and trends.
· Social Workers were increasingly working with children who had multiple and complex needs. This was as a result of a legacy of poor practice.
Ofsted also identified the following areas for improvement:-
· Quality of assessments and plans was variable and management oversight and supervision was not suitably evaluative. (Oversight was currently more directive and needed to develop to include more evaluation of the work being undertaken).
· Children came into care when they needed to but there was some delay in finding the right homes for them.
· Lack of suitable foster placements and children’s homes. (This was both internal and external and it was highlighted that Middlesbrough was trying to develop internal provision).
· Too many care leavers were not in education, employment or training.
· Children’s identities and diverse needs were not given sufficient consideration. (This was not only in relation to ethnicity and culture, but about working with the whole child, for example, did the child have a particular health need, or mental health need).
· Some children experienced too many changes of Social Worker. Children told inspectors they would like to have Social Workers that stayed with them for a long time.
In relation to education matters, there was a significant focus on children missing education. Ofsted found that there were effective systems in place to monitor electively home educated (EHE) children. However, Children's Services had insufficient knowledge of the circumstances of vulnerable children who were missing education so that their needs were not being met. This included a small cohort of children looked after who were on a reduced timetable or who had experienced no education for too long; some children with special education needs did not receive a school placed within the 20 day timescale; and, a very small number of the aforementioned children attended unregistered provision on a part time basis as their sole provision.
Finally, Ofsted had made two new recommendations, as follows:-
· Management oversight and actions to ensure that vulnerable children and children in care, including those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), received their full educational entitlement.
· The understanding of identity and the diverse needs of children and their families to inform assessment, planning and support.
Overall, it was a positive outcome showing that Children’s Services ‘knew themselves’ and what needed to be done.
In terms of the next steps, the Children’s Commissioner was in the process of finalising his 12-month review report to the Minister, having been with Children’s Services during the week commencing 12 July 2021. This report would be brought to the Panel once it was available. It was also expected that a further Ofsted Monitoring Visit would take place towards the end of the year/start of next year.
A discussion ensued and the following issues were raised:-
· Reference was made to the finding that ‘there was a lack of suitable foster placements” and it was queried what was being done to try and rectify this. The Executive Director advised that recruitment of foster carers was a continuous process but it was acknowledged that there had been a net loss of foster carers over the last year partly due to different ways of working being introduced which had led to some carers, regrettably, resigning. In addition, there was also a shortage of external independent (IFA) foster placements and residential placements. Whilst the number of children looked after had reduced in Middlesbrough, other local authorities were seeing a rise in numbers, making external placements more difficult to source. Children’s Services had also had some success in bringing children from external provision into internal provision and continued to try and build its own internal residential provision, including the opening of Daniel Court and the refurbishment of an existing residential home which would soon be available again for placements. It was highlighted that some children looked after had very complex and specific needs which often meant they required specialist placements which were more expensive.
· Reference was made to the Ofsted findings that ‘children are seen regularly and direct work is making a demonstrable difference to their lives’ and ‘the quality of assessments and plans is variable’, and it was queried how the two correlated and whether it was a ‘paperwork’ issue. The Executive Director explained that particularly in the longer term teams, Social Workers built up relationships with children and were often better at understanding children than they were at writing it down. Assessments and plans needed to be more reflective. Other reasons for the variability of assessments and plans could include caseloads, the numbers of newly qualified social workers, turnover, handover of work and training opportunities and standards needed to be implemented. This was one of the reasons for continual audit to assess improvements in practice.
AGREED that the information provided be noted.