THE full letter on Ofsted's first monitoring visit of BCP Council's children's services has been released by the local authority.

Two inspectors from the government department carried out the visit last month, focusing on the 'front door' service, which was an area at the heart of many issues identified in December's highly-critical full inspection.

As reported, BCP Council's children's services was rated as inadequate in the report Ofsted published in February.

The council is set to have a series of staggered monitoring visits focusing on different areas of the department over the next year or so before insecptors carry out another full inspection.

The following is the full letter, which was sent by one of the inspectors to BCP Council's corporate director for children’s services Cathi Hadley.

This letter summarises the findings of the monitoring visit to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole children’s services on 7 and 8 June 2022. This was the first monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate in December 2021. Her Majesty’s inspectors for this visit were Anna Gravelle and Steve Lowe.

Areas covered by the visit

The focus of the monitoring visit was the local authority ‘front door’ service. This includes the work of those teams and staff responsible for the initial consideration and response to referrals about children who may be in need or at risk of significant harm. In particular, inspectors reviewed the progress made in the following areas of concern identified at the last inspection:

  • The quality of practice, in particular assessment, the use and completion of chronologies, the response to domestic violence and the recording of children’s views.
  • The timeliness of social work intervention and support for unborn and very young children at risk of significant harm.
  • The impact of quality assurance and management oversight on the standard of social work practice and progressing work effectively to avoid delay for children.
  • The recruitment and retention of a workforce that is experienced, competent and confident to deliver improvements, so that children no longer have multiple changes of social worker.

This visit was carried out in line with the inspection of local authority children’s services (ILACS) framework.

Headline findings

At the time of the last inspection, senior leaders in the council were aware of deficits in practice but had not taken sufficiently purposeful action to address these issues and to safeguard children. Poor staff retention, high caseloads and an ineffective quality assurance framework resulted in significantly poor practice and consequent concerns for the welfare of children. 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. The quality of practice across the MASH and assessment teams continues to be inconsistent. Although basic and necessary checks are being carried out for almost all children who are the subject of referrals, and some of this initial work with children is now strong, the majority of work beyond this point remains weak. This is due to the varying application of thresholds in response to the needs of children, a lack of sufficient professional curiosity by practitioners in responding to risks for children and assessments that fail to consistently grasp and analyse effectively historical abuse and repeated concerns for children.

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.

Nevertheless, 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. A well-considered and focused quality assurance and governance framework is now in place, although impact is necessarily limited at this early stage of implementation.

The DCS 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.

Findings and evaluation of progress

There is a clear and effective system for the recording of contacts and referrals within the MASH. This system is overseen by suitably experienced managers who assess the most urgent referrals to ensure that responses to those children who have been harmed or who are at risk of significant harm are prioritised and safeguarding measures applied without delay. The system is supported well by a ‘duty pod’ weekly rota across the four MASH pods and five assessment teams and this helps to maintain an immediate response to those children most at risk. 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. Although always very heavy, sometimes exceptionally so, the workload for staff is now more manageable, and thresholds for the provision of services are largely applied appropriately in the MASH. This is helping to ensure a timely response for those children most at risk, although this is not consistently the case for all children at present.

In most children’s cases, consent is sought and recorded from parents and carers when further multi-agency checks are needed. However, for a few children, consent is not clearly recorded and there is not always a clear rationale when it has been necessary to dispense with consent. Risks in referrals are generally identified using the local authority’s preferred model of social work practice. However, not all referrals demonstrate a clearly recorded rationale for decision-making based on a robust analysis that considers children’s previous histories and risks. In too many children’s cases, multi-agency checks are recommended by managers but not carried out, with no recorded reason as to why they did not take place. This does not support fully informed decision-making before decisions about next steps are made. This means that some referrals to early help services are made prematurely, without wider information-sharing to identify the most appropriate support.

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.

The recently introduced use of a performance tracker by managers in the MASH has been key to ensuring swifter manager oversight and more prompt decision-making for children. Managers referred to the live updates they receive about staff workloads as a useful tool in increasing oversight and timeliness. Staff described to inspectors a welcome and positive improvement in communication between teams and from senior managers, achieved through more regular meetings in the MASH and assessment teams. Staff particularly noted the part played in this improvement by a recently appointed interim service manager.

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.

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.

Referrals about children made to early help services by the MASH are mostly suitable and timely. Thresholds for decisions for children stepping up to statutory services and stepping down to early help are appropriate. When risks escalate for children, early help practitioners ensure that referrals are made to the MASH for review. 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.

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. There is minimal insight in case records about recurrent patterns of abuse or a full analysis of historical information to understand the impact on children of unchanged parental behaviours. The response to unborn and very young children at risk of significant harm remains mixed. Often social workers lack urgency in response to the risks presented and while there is evidence of increased assertiveness in management decision-making, this is not always followed through or fully evident in practice.

Child protection strategy discussions are timely and there is strong multi-agency attendance, although attendees are not routinely recorded in the minutes. Decision-making in meetings has minimal recorded analysis, rationale and follow-up actions that include timescales. This does not allow social workers to fully understand the risks to children or to always identify the right next steps for intervention. Subsequent child protection enquiries result in little positive impact for children and demonstrate a weak understanding of thresholds, with many enquiries leading to no further support for children.

While social workers are encouraged by lower caseloads than previously, these still remain high overall and this inevitably limits the amount of time that they are able to focus on each of the individual children they are working with. Social workers and their managers have worked hard to ensure that the backlog of assessments that had built up since the last inspection has been cleared. However, 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. They lack a strong professional analysis and are not underpinned by any research or by a consistent model of practice that could support workers’ understanding. As a result, children are often stepped down to early help or have their cases closed too early, without sufficient focus having been paid to their experiences or a sustained improvement to their lives having been achieved.

Social workers are now receiving supervision more consistently and an updated and helpful supervision policy is now in place aimed at improving quality. However, frequency and quality remain inconsistent. While supervision records do identify key concerns, there is a lack of reflective analysis about the impact of these concerns and of children’s wider situations on their experience and on the progress they make. Supervision records do not contain sufficient or clear enough case direction to help social workers to make the most timely and meaningful interventions.

The DCS and her senior leadership team have had an understandable focus on improving compliance with policies and procedures but have now extended this to also focus on the need to develop the quality of practice. This refocus has been welcomed by staff, who also speak positively about reducing caseloads, the beginnings of a more open culture for learning and healthy challenge, and an inclusive offer of training to temporary workers. A recently completed self-assessment shows that leaders have a sound understanding of the key priorities for improvement, recognise the extent of the challenges they face and recognise the urgency of the need for change for children.

The quality assurance and governance framework is relatively new and, although this means that its impact is limited at present, it is beginning to support some improvement and has the potential to be a catalyst for change. Practice learning reviews (PLRs) are now taking place and some workers speak positively of this opportunity to reflect and learn. Nonetheless, the process is not yet fully embedded and there is inconsistency in the quality of PLRs. Learning from PLRs, including feedback from workers, children and their families, is not yet reliably gathered or cohesively used to aid development and learning. Leaders have undoubtedly taken some important steps that have the potential to support future progress. Not least of these is a greater clarity about what needs to be done, and improved visibility to and communication with the workforce, which is beginning to improve morale. However, their focus on implementing clear practice standards and embedding a consistent practice model continues to be held back by the churn of temporary staff in the front door. This challenge is complicated by the continuing legacy of local government reorganisation and is consequently a challenge for political and corporate leaders as much as it is for the DCS and her senior leadership team.

I am copying this letter to the Department for Education. Because this is the first monitoring visit to your local authority, we will not publish this letter on the Ofsted website. You may share this letter with others if you wish.

Yours sincerely

Anna Gravelle

Her Majesty’s Inspector