THE council staff working to turnaround BCP Council's children's services have received feedback from Ofsted after the watchdog's first visit since rating the department as inadequate.

Inspector Anna Gravelle said council had taken “some important steps” that could support future progress but there was still signficiant steps to be made.

Cathi Hadley, BCP Council's director of children's services, described the letter on the first monitoring visit as "fair".

She said there were "green shoots of progress", with staff feeling positive about the future following the extremely critical full inspection, which took place in December last year.

While the first monitoring visit letter provided from Ofsted is not published on the Government's department website, the Daily Echo sat down with Ms Hadley and portfolio holder for children and young people Cllr Mike White to discuss the detailed feedback from Ofsted.

Two inspectors visited BCP Council on June 7 and June 8 focused on the ‘front door’ service, which included work in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).

Below are some of the key extracts from the letter (in bold and italics), which was dated June 30, along with the responses the council chiefs offered when asked about them by the Daily Echo.

At the point of this visit, there were no children identified as at immediate risk of significant harm for who this had not been identified and appropriate action taken.

The local authority’s out-of-hours social work team provides an appropriate service when children need urgent help and protection. Strong collaboration with health and police professionals allows for the smooth sharing of intelligence. Practitioners provide timely responses in managing risks to children, including making sure that children do not remain in custody for longer than is necessary. Information is routinely and promptly shared by out-of-hours social workers with the MASH each morning for follow-up.

Responses to children suffering, or at risk of, criminal or sexual exploitation are generally well developed and effective. Staff’s skill and understanding enables meaningful work to be carried out with children that helps to reduce the risks from exploitation and to keep them safer.

Ms Hadley said: “It is really important. I have a notebook and I think I am on notebook number four for BCP Council and written on the front of it is building stronger foundations because that is my mantra – we have got to build those foundations but based on where our most urgent need is.

“Children who need out of hours support is very urgent, county lines, exploitation. I have just done a session with designated safeguarding leads in schools because we need to build our relationship with them because they have eyes on children and understand some of those connections in county lines and exploitation that we need to work side by side and work with them.

“It is about dealing with the immediate really tricky problems but working with our partners in that. Out of ours would be police and they are setting up community partnership safety hubs. We are now very much involved in some of that – how do we make sure we are working partners and we are front and present in some of those challenging areas and those very national issues.”

Workforce stability remains fragile, with a very high percentage of staff across the children’s first response multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and assessment teams in temporary posts

Ms Hadley said: “We are working with our staff to understand the reasons why they might leave or the reasons that they stay because we have got some agency workers that have worked with us for a long period of time so is that a lifestyle choice but also how can we attract staff in.

“Some of our permanent staff we are talking to them. We are building a workforce strategy because it is not always about money. It is about how we value people, it is about what is our offer, what us makes us an employee of choice.

“We can look at nine-day fortnights. There is a conversation about are there areas where you could do a four-day week, so initiatives like that. What is it that would make us a good employer? We have got the international social workers that we have begun to come into the system and we have also got some areas of grow your own because equally it is that short, medium and long-term work that we need to do.

“it is how do we recruit staff, how do we train staff but it is also how do we make sure that we have got a workforce for the future, so we are looking at our grown our own and we have just embarked on some conversations with the DfE about a new programme that they are doing nationally about grow your own.

“Workforce is definitely a national problem. We are almost all tugging at the same table cloth for the same groups of staff, so there is a bit about how do we in BCP Council make ourselves an employer of choice.

“I would say, come to work for BCP Council because it is absolutely where innovation and creativity will happen but also the fact that for me it is about how do I ensure children and families get the services that they should and I have a duty to do that as social worker background myself and I would encourage people to come and do that.

“It is extremely rewarding. You work just as hard in an outstanding local authority because you are trying to do the next best thing where as I actually think you work just as hard here to really a make a positive impact and outcome for children and young people.

“We have some really, really good staff here, who are working really, really hard under some difficult reputation as it were and I would like to personally thank those staff, especially those who have stayed and are still here that are working hard with the senior leadership team to move things forward.”

"We have still the issue that we had that the majority of our agency staff are at our front door where the Ofsted monitoring visit went in. What I would say though is our percentage of permanent staff is just slowly, slowly going up over the last four months and our reliance on agency staff is slowly going down.

“We are working on it and I think some of the things we are doing incrementally will pick up pace. We are seeing the green shoots of that (staffing) shifting slightly. We have a new service director in permanent for safeguarding and early help, which is around that area where we have got most agency staff and that will make an incredible amount of difference.”

Since the recent appointment of a permanent and experienced corporate director of Children’s Services (DCS) in January 2022, along with a permanent senior leadership team, work to understand the quality and impact of practice and to drive improvement has become more thorough and has gathered pace.

Ms Hadley said: “The senior leadership team are all permanent. The service managers, the next layer down, are all permanent in the next eight weeks, our final one comes in and then we will work on our next level down, which is team managers.

“What absolutely will happen is I don’t want people to think agency social work doesn’t equal good social work, but if we have a permanent staff group, what that does is it enables us to instil the culture and also the priorities of where we are going and what our vision is and what our practice model is or how do we expect people to work around here and how do we expect them to evidence what they are doing and being accountable to children and young people.

Cllr White said: “From my perspective this is one of our and Cathi’s major achievements over the past few months is getting a top, permanent management team in place and I was really pleased that Ofsted actually complemented Cathi and her team on the pace of change at the moment and I thought that was a real highlight.”

Rising need, coupled with the constant churn of staff, is affecting the timeliness, quality and consistency of assessments, which remain too variable. The quality of an assessment is much dependent on the individual worker. In too many children’s cases, assessments are mainly limited to a description of the key issues.

Ms Hadley said: “One of the thing that it says in the monitoring visit letter is about a practice model, so is literally about what is BCP Council’s practice model for our social workers.

“There is a working group that is looking at this because there are quite a lot of different practice models nationally.

“One of the big ones that everyone uses is ‘signs of safety’, but what we need to do is think what is the right one for us. Once you have got a practice model, what that does is it then gives the opportunity to badge people’s work against that model, so they have a framework to work to and we have something which enables us to manage that compliance but also that quality.

“That is something we will be putting in place and having a conversation with the DfE (Department for Education) and also our partners about what that might look like and how we implement that and how we evidence the work.”

The challenges created by the ongoing impact of local government reorganisation and the use of multiple computer systems continue to hold back children’s services’ development. While there is much political and corporate commitment to resolving the problems caused by workforce instability, an anticipated package of measures aimed at tackling these issues is not yet in place.

Ms Hadley said: “What is being done in that area is there is a whole corporate transformation agenda that is being managed, so there is a lot of work going on corporately because some of those areas are not just about children’s services, it is about how we all manage our HR, how we all manage our IT systems, how the council becomes more digitalised, all of those things, and some of those take longer than others.

“For children’s services and the area that was mentioned in the monitoring visit letter is around that front door and them having to manage two or three case management systems rather than just one.

“I do not want to give the impression that that is not addressed because it absolutely is and it is about when but it is also about migrating over.

“We have to do those things quite carefully so we don’t lose any data or any pace around that.”

Cllr White: “We would say as an administration children’s services is our top political priority. Drew (Mellor, council leader) says this regularly and he highlights it particularly by talking about our increased investment in children’s services over the past couple of years.

“We have increased the revenue budget by more than £20million, which is about a 35 per cent increase in the total budget over two years and there is no other area of the council that has seen increases anything like that.”

The director of children’s services and her senior leadership team have an honest and deep grasp of practice shortfalls, gained through a range of targeted thematic reviews into priority areas of practice. This self-awareness underpins their aspiration and determination to improve services for children and provides a necessary foundation for further progress.

Ms Hadley said: “We are accountable to the children and young people that we serve and need to make ourselves accountable and we can only do that by being open, honest and transparent.

“Actually enabling people to have that conversation with us to understand that there are things we need to stand up and hold our hands up. We will do that but it is also about our learning environment and making sure we learn from that and how do we develop our services on that.

“I have recently spent a session with children and young people, with care experienced young people on what their experience has been like living and being supported by BCP Council and children and young people who are currently in the care system.

“One of the things that is important to them is listening to children and young people that we serve but also the staff and Ofsted, we can begin to build some of that honesty and transparency but also what is our agenda, what is our plan and how do we make sure we deliver what we need to.”

Since the last inspection, the domestic abuse worker has left the role and the post remains vacant despite repeated attempts to fill the position. This has left a gap and has impacted negatively on the quality of triage for some domestic abuse referrals. Responses to some referrals about children living in homes with domestic abuse are not informed by a sufficient depth of specialist knowledge. This has resulted in a muddled and delayed reaction for some children and their families.

Ms Hadley said: “What that is about is where is our specialism in that team and I think around domestic abuse there needs to be a specialism. From conversations with the Ofsted inspectors, it is about people are trying to manage the work but they need that specialist person within the team.

“It has been out for advert several times but we have not managed to recruit that. It is something we are looking at with HR because is it the way that we are advertising it, is it where we are advertising it, is it the salary. All of those conversations are going on because we do see that as quite important, so we will review what we are doing there and it is key.”

Insufficient capacity means that there is currently a waiting list of 33 families who have been referred to early help but are yet to receive a service. However, risks to families on the waiting list are regularly reviewed through keeping-in-touch calls with parents, carers and other agencies when this is appropriate. During this visit, no children on this waiting list were identified as needing urgent help.

Ms Hadley said: “It is a capacity problem. The waiting list is now smaller. We don’t want there to be a waiting list, so we have to manage the work that comes through the system.

“It is also some work we need to do with our partners in that early help space, like our voluntary sector and charities etc, so we have just had our first early help partnership board to bring together those agencies to say what actually is it that we can do and how can we signpost because that also will help with reducing that waiting list.

“Also it is about have we got enough staff and it is about reviewing where we put our staff and making that they are dealing with what we need to because early help is needed because that stops the pressure in terms of children’s social care coming into the system and that enables children and families to have a service at the right time, at the right point, rather than waiting.”

When children are re-referred to the MASH, too often responses by social workers and managers are one-dimensional, focusing on immediate issues rather than also considering the lived experiences and impact of past abuse on children. This is compounded by a lack of evidence of professional curiosity and by chronologies not being routinely collated on children’s files.

Ms Hadley: “There is a lot of work going on in that area because when we have re-referrals the question is are they referring back in with the same issue, are they being referred back in because we didn’t actually manage to support them with the issues that they came along with and have we got the early help support.

“Some of those things are all being looked at and we are asking Hampshire County Council to come in and do a dip sample of our work in that area to make sure we have got our thresholds right.

“Work is happening that area and we take that quite seriously because we don’t want children re-referred in, we want to manage to provide children and families the services they need at the point so they don’t need to come back in.”