OFSTED inspectors have uncovered a raft of issues in Tameside’s social services during the pandemic – including a ‘deterioration’ in responses and some youngsters continuing to live amid ‘neglect’ for too long.
The watchdog carried out a focused inspection of the council’s children’s services department in May as part of a national investigation into how care is being delivered throughout Covid-19.
In the report, published on Friday, her majesty’s inspector Paula Thomson-Jones said that greater demands on the service, combined with higher staff turnover has meant that caseloads are now ‘too high’ among most social work teams.
A local authority improvement plan, put in place after the department was rated ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted in 2019, has had ‘little impact’ over the last 12 months.
Ms Thompson-Jones stated that there has been a ‘deterioration in the timeliness and quality of response to children in some areas’.
Richard Hancock, Tameside’s director of children’s services told a meeting of the executive cabinet that the report had highlighted a ‘number of issues’ which are impacting ‘negatively on improving outcomes for children’.
The cabinet agreed further financial investment to support improvement and increase capacity in the service.
Inspectors found that the majority of children whose cases were reviewed had experienced two or three changes of social worker in the last six months.
“This has prevented them from developing meaningful, trusting relationships with their worker,” the report states.
“For some children, this has led to drift and delay in the progress of their plans as new social workers try to understand their circumstances and the needs of their families.
“Some children live in situations of neglect for too long before decisions are made to consider the threshold for legal action.
“For some children whose circumstances do not improve despite intervention during pre-proceedings, the decision to apply to the courts is too slow and leaves them experiencing further neglect.”
Inspectors said that a lack of placement choice has led to some youngsters being placed in ‘unsuitable placements’ when they come into care.
This manifested in ‘several examples’ of 16-year-olds who had been placed in semi-independent unregulated accommodation, including some who were still at school, when this was ‘not appropriate’ to meet their needs.
The Ofsted report states that qualified social workers and managers in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) undertake timely initial screening of children who are referred to children’s social care.
However where additional information gathering is needed this takes ‘too long’ and leads to ‘many children’ waiting up to two weeks before decisions are made about what further action should be taken.
“A small number of children who should be passed for social work assessment continue to live in situations of unassessed risk for longer than is necessary,” Ms Thompson-Jones states.
However as a result of feedback from inspectors the local authority undertook an ‘immediate review’ of work within the MASH to ensure that children experienced no further delays.
Strategy meetings convened over children who are at immediate risk result in ‘appropriate and timely decisions’ for most children, however health colleagues are not represented at many meetings.
Ofsted said this leads to gaps in some of the information available to inform decisions about the level of risk and means that social workers and managers ‘cannot be confident that the decisions made are appropriate’.
The number of care leavers in education, training or employment remains too low and is below that of other local authorities, inspectors said.
“Insufficient action had been taken to provide support to address this prior to the onset of the pandemic,” the report states.
“The impact of the pandemic on the emotional health and well-being of care leavers is not consistently understood and some young people do not receive support when they need it.”
Ofsted said that scrutiny by senior leaders is too focused on measuring process through ‘performance data and overall audit grades’ rather than the ‘evaluation of the experiences of children’.
Inspectors said: “Management oversight does not ensure timely decision-making and consistently good practice.”
However they stated that senior leaders were open to ‘feedback and learning’ during the visit, including the need to be more ‘child-focused’.
“They took immediate action to address the issues identified and senior and political leaders agreed to the provision of immediate additional investment to address a lack of capacity across several parts of the service,” Ms Thompson-Jones said.
Speaking at a meeting of the executive cabinet on Wednesday, which discussed the Ofsted report, Richard Hancock said: “The improvement programme with children’s services does continue to make progress.
“A policy of investing in early help and a strengthening of the basic procedures and practice continues to support stability.
“However the impact of Covid, our own self assessment and the recent feedback from Ofsted have confirmed where further improvements are required which presents the organisation with an opportunity to accelerate the work as well as challenges.
“High caseloads are impacting on our ability to recruit and specifically retain social workers.”
He added that refocusing and increasing existing capacity is needed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and support ‘ongoing improvements in quality’.
Cabinet agreed to invest an extra £461k this year, and a further £504k next year to improve the service and provide additional capacity.
Cabinet member responsible for children’s services, Councillor Bill Fairfoull told the meeting: “It’s just about keeping on track and making sure we drill down, and if people are not delivering then we need to maybe raise it at the time rather than maybe just sitting back.”
Council leader Brenda Warrington said it was a ‘very difficult situation’ with children’s services.
“We know that financially we have a big hill to climb,” she added.
“The one area that I think we need to do quite a lot of work on is integrated work with other partners.
“We need to try to ensure that we get the support of all our partners so we’re addressing not just children, but whole families.”
The meeting was told it was ‘highly likely’ that Ofsted would be carrying out a further inspection of the department in the next six months.