Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services are not improving fast enough meaning vulnerable youngsters may still be unsafe, inspectors have found.
Ofsted uncovered a ‘lack of progress’ at Stoke-on-Trent City Council following last month’s monitoring visit – which came a year after the authority children’s social care department was given the worst possible rating.
Inspector Peter McEntee found that despite numerous changes and millions of pounds of extra investment, the poor standard of social work practice means council chiefs still ‘cannot be assured that children in Stoke-on-Trent are safe’.
Risk to children is not consistently identified and acted on, while children in need plans are ‘almost uniformly poor’.
There are currently 924 children in care in Stoke-on-Trent – far more than in similar areas.
While Mr McEntee noted that the council had cut the number of unallocated cases and reduced social workers’ caseloads, he criticised the effectiveness of the overarching improvement plan.
In his letter to the authority, Mr McEntee states: “Social workers and team managers do not consistently identify when children are subject to risk, and, in too many cases, they fail to act to manage or minimise risk when it is identified.
“In these situations, children are left at risk without the protection of planned multiagency intervention
“Children in need plans are almost uniformly poor, and there are no timescales for actions to be completed. This makes it extremely difficult to determine the pace of progress. In many cases, plans are overly focused on the needs of parents, and there is little connection between the actions required of parents and their impact on children.
“This makes it problematic for parents to see why actions are necessary and how their children will benefit as a result. In some plans, it is difficult to see what a parent needs to do to successfully respond to initial concerns and bring intervention to an end.”
Ofsted did find that in some individual cases, social workers were listening to youngsters and making a ‘positive difference’ in their lives.
The inspectors also praised the new programme of ‘back-to-basics’ training for social work staff and managers, saying it was a ‘positive step’.
Council leaders carried out £5.5 million of emergency budget cuts last year so funding could be diverted to children’s services.
Mr McEntee noted this ‘significant financial investment’ had been used on a range of temporary staffing measures, but with these arrnagements due to end shortly, sustainable improvement depended on the recruitment of permanent staff.
The council recently announced a formal partnership with Leeds City Council – rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted – as part of efforts to transform children’s services.
Council chiefs said they were ‘disappointed’ by the inspectors’ findings and vowed to make the necessary improvements – although this could take up to three years.
Council leader Abi Brown said: “Improving children’s services is our number one priority. We are very disappointed by the inspectors’ findings from the visit. This simply isn’t good enough for children in Stoke-on-Trent.
“The visit left no stone unturned and also clearly shows the scale of the challenge we are facing. We now know exactly where our services are and we are clear on what needs to be done to turn services around for children and young people in this city. With new leadership in place and a clear plan, we are one hundred per cent committed to improving our services and are working hard to ensure that we do – it is after all only what children and young people in Stoke-on-Trent deserve.”
Dave Evans, cabinet lead for children and young people, added: “We had informal feedback from Ofsted on their visit and since then we’ve been briefing staff so they know the findings from inspectors. They are rightly disappointed too and understand that it is critical that each and every one of us takes responsibility to address the concerns for the children and young people of Stoke-on-Trent.
“Working with staff and managers, we’ve already started to take actions to address these concerns and are putting in place a full-scale response to transform our services. We have spent the last few months focusing on achieving some of the basic principles we need to improve our children’s services, both through how we deliver the service but also the oversight of it. But it’s been no secret that transformation on this scale is likely to take up to three years.
“Having Leeds City Council as our improvement partner for the next 12 months will provide additional capacity and expertise that is critical to making these necessary improvements. We only want the best for children and families in Stoke-on-Trent and will do everything we can to make the progress that is required for the good of children and young people in this city.
“We’ve already benefitted from expertise provided by Stockport and Essex councils on a shorter term basis which has been hugely helpful to our staff and our ways of working. With this extra help we now need to take a significant step forward in delivering improvements across all aspects of children services, providing the best outcomes for children in the city. We are determined to do just that.”