In its final report IICSA identified the challenges faced by local authorities. There is much in the news which also highlights just how challenging it is for local authorities to meet the needs of those in their areas particularly with increasing financial constraints. Recruitment and retention of qualified staff is just one of the significant challenges currently faced. IICSA made a number of recommendations which if implemented will impact on local authorities but it is far from clear as yet what the Government’s response will be to those recommendations.
Ofsted inspectors have recently downgraded the ratings of a number of local authorities including Nottingham City, Devon and Trafford. Issues identified in Nottingham highlight some of the challenges faced and that there can be both positive and negative issues identified simultaneously.
The downgrading was prompted by deficiencies that were identified in the ability to provide protection for children in need of help via the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (‘MASH’). Ofsted inspectors further found that most cases within Nottingham City (“the Council”) were not processed within appropriate timescales, causing some children to be left at risk without appropriate safety plans.
Delays of up to six weeks have been partly attributed to ‘complicated systems’ that see partners sometimes taking as long as sixteen days to respond to Social Worker’s requests for information. Many children are experiencing repeated contacts and referrals before receiving the help they need to improve their situation and Ofsted have further criticised the management oversight for failing to apply thresholds and provide direction when overseeing the timeliness of contacts.
The backlog issues were identified by senior management in November 2021 but initial attempts to address the issue have proven unsuccessful with a greater number of children being referred. Further efforts have been made by the Council in May this year to recruit new members of their social work team and alleviate the pressures on their systems, but inspectors found these ineffective in ensuring a timely and safe response for children who met thresholds.
Leaders within the Council have acknowledged that the situation is ‘unacceptable’ and have, in response to the concerns raised, audited significant numbers of cases to ensure that the children’s needs are being appropriately assessed and brought forward numerous planned changes. Furthermore, the Council has confirmed that they are acutely aware of how important the area is and are working at pace alongside MASH to improve the timeliness and threshold of decision-making.
Staff turnover within the fostering service has also presented numerous issues. The high turnover has resulted in carers having insufficient training or support from supervising social workers and further impacting the care that may be offered to vulnerable children within the constituency.
Furthermore, Ofsted criticised the designated officer service stating that its ability to manage allegations against professionals was ineffective as it saw non-social work qualified staff engaging in gathering information in “a complex and specialist area of safeguarding”. A situation that was further compounded by the lack of managerial oversight.
Not all of the assessment was negative. Beyond the MASH it was found that the children in need and child protection practices were better. Ofsted found that most assessments had a clear purpose and rational. Direct work with the children was said to provide valuable insights into the experiences of the children and their needs were well-considered by plans that also factored in their wishes and feelings.
The inspectors praised the practices employed by the Council for children at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation, for whom detailed assessment, multi-agency meetings and effective planning were reducing risks. It was also found that children benefitted from early and authoritative decisions on whether or not to escalate their cases, though it was also found that some children faced delays in being indicted into case and, as a result, were left in neglectful situations for far longer than they should have been.
Nonetheless, the situation was still considered to be ‘unsatisfactory’ in terms of the provision of care offered to the children. Ofsted commented that the scale of the improvements required remains substantial and that the pace of change in all areas of the service needs to quicken to ensure that the service is able to provide safe and consistently good services for the children within their care.
Cheryl Barnard, Nottingham’s portfolio holder for children, young people and schools, confirmed that the recommendations and findings were accepted and apologised that “some children are not getting the right help at the right time”. Barnard further confirmed that immediate action had been taken over the summer to ensure swift improvement in key areas, including increased recruitment of permanent staff and that attempts to improve the service were more than an effort to improve their Ofsted rating; the improvements were being made to ensure that children were able to benefit from the best services possible and that they are “safe, protected and inspired to reach their full potential”.