Ofsted letter 15 September 2020
15 September 2020
Ian Sutherland Director of Children’s Services
Dear Mr Sutherland
Monitoring visit of Medway children’s services
This letter summarises the findings of the monitoring visit to Medway children’s services on 20 August 2020. The visit was the first monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate in July 2019. The inspectors were Matt Reed and Amanda Maxwell, Her Majesty’s Inspectors.
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills is leading Ofsted’s work into how England’s social care system has delivered child-centred practice and care within the context of the restrictions placed on society during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
The methodology for this monitoring visit was in line with the ILACS framework. However, a different delivery model was used. This visit was undertaken off site, utilising information technology and video conferencing to facilitate child- and service-related discussions between inspectors and local authority social workers, managers and leaders. The approach was agreed in advance by the Director of Children’s Services and Ofsted to ensure an effective visit, while working within national and local arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to meet the needs of the Medway workforce.
The local authority has made some initial progress in improving services for its children and young people. Through targeted investment in the service and a well planned realignment of the teams, leaders have laid the foundations for practice to change and improve.
Areas covered by the visit
During the course of this visit, inspectors reviewed the progress made by the ‘front door’ of the service, with a particular focus on the interface with early help services, the quality of initial decision-making, the timeliness of service provision and the quality of initial assessment and planning.
A range of evidence was considered, including electronic case records, case discussions with social workers and managers, and management and performance reports provided by the local authority.
Since the inadequate judgement in the ILACS inspection in July 2019, the local authority has completed a wide range of diagnostic work, and has embraced the support of improvement partners, to consider the areas that need to improve most to ensure that children are safeguarded. The local authority has worked hard to put in place the foundations for practice to improve, and there are signs that these are beginning to have a positive effect. Senior managers are realistic about the weaknesses and inconsistent quality of work that they continue to find in some parts of the service. They acknowledge the challenges they face as they increase the pace of improvement work.
There is now a permanent senior management team in post with a clear focus on improving the quality of interventions with families. Additional investment in staffing and a service realignment has contributed to vastly reducing caseloads to manageable levels in the assessment teams. At the last inspection, high caseloads were a significant concern. A model of social work practice has been introduced, and staff welcome this, but it is not yet being used consistently.
At the ‘front door’, families receive the right service to match their need, and thresholds are appropriately applied. Effective management oversight within the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) ensures that there is rarely any delay in offering a service to families. Children are seen in a timely way; this was not occurring at the time of the inspection in July 2019. Overall, partners work well together to ensure that there is effective information-sharing and planning.
Assessments are completed promptly, with clear evidence that children are seen, and that their views are considered. Social workers know the children well. Assessments are detailed, but further work is required to improve the analysis of risk and need. Re-referral rates remain high, and further work by the local authority is needed to analyse whether there is a link between re-referrals and the quality of interventions prior to support ceasing. The quality of plans and planning for children needs to improve to ensure that services can track progress and outcomes effectively. There is management oversight on case files, but this is not yet consistently contributing to effective planning.
Findings and evaluation of progress
This was the first monitoring visit since the inadequate judgement in July 2019, the first visit being delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The local authority has used the time to engage improvement partners, to complete diagnostic work and to take some initial steps to ensure that children are safeguarded.
There is now a permanent senior management team in place, providing increased stability in moving forward the improvement agenda. Senior managers, criticised in the inspection for not having sufficient oversight of practice deficits, are now realistic about current practice issues. They acknowledge the challenges they face and the need to ensure that the pace of improvement increases. A more robust approach to quality assurance has ensured that practice deficits and recurring themes are identified and inform service improvements.
The council has provided additional investment for staffing, and the service has been realigned to reduce caseloads and match the skills of managers and workers to a particular area of practice. A further 35 social work posts have been created across the service and an additional assessment team is now in place, increasing the capacity of these teams to complete work with families when they are referred to children’s services.
Caseloads, particularly in the assessment teams, have reduced significantly, and this is enabling social workers to see families soon after referral and at regular times during the assessment. This is also reducing delays for children and families in accessing support. This is a significant improvement compared with the situation at the time of the inspection, when social workers in some parts of the service had unacceptably high caseloads. There is some caution to be applied in analysing caseloads, because many of the reductions occurred post-lockdown, at a time when referrals to children’s social care in Medway dropped markedly. However, senior managers are actively planning for any potential surge in future demand. They also acknowledge that while there has been a reduction of work in the assessment teams, in other areas of the service demand has increased.
Recruitment and retention of social workers remain problematic. However, this is being addressed through the introduction of a more structured career pathway and a firmer focus on creating a more positive working environment. The social workers and managers spoken to during the visit were positive about working in Medway; they said that managers at all levels are supportive and available, and that they are given the opportunity to develop.
There has been investment in a model of social work practice to provide more consistency in practice and to aid the analysis of risk and need. The training for this is ongoing, and its implementation remains in its infancy. Although welcomed by practitioners, as yet the model is not being used in practice consistently enough to have a significant impact on interventions with families.
There is effective oversight of work within the MASH, and in cases seen by inspectors there had been no delay in offering a service to families or ensuring that children are safeguarded. Management direction at this early stage is clear, minimising any potential delay. Staff say that the benefits of partnership working within the MASH and the introduction of an early help coordinator are helping to direct families to the right service at the earliest opportunity. Referral records are very detailed and contain checks with agencies, parents and, sometimes, the children. Although this aids decision-making, there needs to be caution that de facto assessments are not occurring at the referral stage without the full consent of families.
Children and families are stepped up from early help to statutory services appropriately. However, it was noted by inspectors that the majority of these families were stepped up as a result of a precipitating incident rather than an escalation of concerns or a review by early help which concluded that a higher tier of intervention was required. For a small number of children, they could have been stepped up sooner, and this may have prevented a crisis, or the need for services to respond to a crisis.
Early help assessments vary in quality, and the format is not easy to follow. The assessments are descriptive and lack analysis of the child and family’s needs and how services are going to meet needs or improve children’s circumstances. Subsequently, the plans are not focused, and there was no evidence that the plans are reviewed to measure the impact of the services in meeting the child’s needs.
Thresholds are applied appropriately in the vast majority of cases, and there were no children who were considered by inspectors to be at risk of harm. However, threshold decisions about stepping children down from child in need support to early help are inconsistent, and some children are stepped down too soon. Examples of joint work between statutory services and early help were limited, and at times social workers withdraw without a period of oversight to monitor that changes in the family have been sustained. Re-referral rates remain high, and it was noticeable that many of the re-referrals had been closed to children’s social care, with a ‘referral to early help’, but without a period of social work oversight to ensure that change was sustained.
Assessments are completed in a timely way, and no delays were seen in children being visited. This marks a significant improvement compared with the situation at the inspection. Social workers ensure that children are seen alone, often more than once, and they use direct work to understand children’s experiences. More recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, creative methods of seeing and speaking with children have had to be utilised, using direct and virtual contact. An effective system of risk assessment during this time has ensured that the most vulnerable are identified and seen more often.
The quality of assessments is not yet consistently good. Many assessments are detailed, but some are overly descriptive and, at times, repetitive. Although children are seen, their voice can get lost in the level of detail contained within other sections of the assessment. In households where there is more than one child, the experiences of all children do not come through strongly enough. Historical information is included, but is not sufficiently analysed, and this results in social workers having to ‘start again’ on many occasions. Practitioners are not fully making use of the tools available to them in order to assist in their assessment and understanding of the impact of domestic abuse on children and families.
There is a lack of challenge to parents who minimise the long-term impact of domestic abuse on children. Assessments sometimes focus on adult needs and miss the emotional and physical needs of children who witness domestic abuse, and this was a recurrent theme within many of the re-referrals. The essential information is there, and some assessments contain elements of research, but the analysis of risk and need remains weak. There is effective information-sharing and planning in strategy discussions and child protection investigations. Thresholds for intervention are appropriately applied. In the vast majority of cases, appropriate agencies attend. However, health representatives were missing in a small number of meetings.
Children’s plans are not yet of a good quality; the specific needs of each child are not well identified, and many planned interventions do not include timescales to enable effective tracking of progress and outcomes. Plans tend to reflect adult needs and interventions rather than the intended outcome for the child.
The quality of management oversight and direction is not consistently contributing to effective planning. There is evidence of management oversight on case files in assessments and plans, and supervision is occurring regularly. However, supervision notes are not sufficiently analytical and recordings lack evidence that managers are challenging social workers or encouraging them to think about wider issues. On too many occasions, inspectors saw supervision notes which simply repeated what had been recorded within assessments, along with a confirmation of the social worker’s recommendation. There are pockets of good challenge and escalation by managers, but this not evident enough in all cases.
I am copying this letter to the Department for Education.
Her Majesty’s Inspector