Children's services in Northamptonshire improving but at risk children still not helped and protected at the earliest opportunity says Ofsted
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Children’s services across Northamptonshire still require improvement, Ofsted inspectors have said in their latest follow-up inspection report especially for children at risk of exploitation and who go missing.
Northamptonshire Children’s Trust (NCT) was set up as the joint service for North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) and West Northamptonshire Council (WNC).
Since the previous full inspection in October 2022, NCT that delivers children’s social care and targeted early help services, has focussed on stabilising the workforce.
At that inspection, NCT was told what to improve to move the service’s overall effectiveness from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’.
Julian Wooster, Chairman of NCT said: “We are very pleased that Ofsted continue to see the improvements that we are making with our partners.
“Critical to the journey are our valuable workforce and alongside a strong stable leadership team, they are committed to improving the lives of children in Northamptonshire.
“We welcome the commitment and support that we receive from North and West Northamptonshire Councils and collaboratively we can achieve the best possible outcomes for children, young people and families in the county.”
In a letter sent to both authorities, Ofsted said senior leaders have maintained a firm focus on improvement through external reviews, quality assurance processes and a realistic improvement plan.
Last month Ofsted carried out a focused visit to the ‘Front Door’ services within countywide children’s services – this is where all safeguarding referrals are received and reviewed to consider the level of need and urgency, ensuring children and families get the support that they need.
In a findings letter inspectors said, ‘the positive culture alongside a successful workforce strategy, has resulted in the front door workforce being more stable than it has been in years’.
Inspectors added that staff having a manageable workload meant that ‘social workers in the Duty and Assessment Teams can build positive relationships with children’ and ‘many skilfully do this’. They also said ‘collaborative, strengths-based social work practice is having a positive impact for many families.’
Leadership was also highlighted as a strength, with Ofsted saying senior leaders have ‘maintained a firm focus on improvement through external reviews, quality assurance processes and a realistic improvement plan’.
They added: ‘Leaders know their front door service well. They understand the service’s strengths, in particular, an increasingly stable workforce and improvements in the quality of social work interventions and assessments’.
In this latest visit, inspectors found ‘social workers across front door services are very positive about working for NCT’, describing a supportive, strengths-based culture’. They added that ‘staff are motivated, and, like their leaders, they are committed to improving the lives of children in Northamptonshire’.
But the report also highlighted concerns over the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH)’s initial responses to children at risk of exploitation and who go missing.
They also noted weaknesses in responses to children out of hours, the development of early help provision Ofsted and the current IT systems – the current systems being ‘too complicated’ and noted social workers in the MASH have to navigate seven different systems.
Actions to address these weaknesses are under way but are not yet having an impact. As a result, help and protection for some children is not provided at the earliest opportunity.
Improvements in social work practice need to include
◼ The quality and effectiveness of decision-making and management oversight in the MASH.
◼ Initial responses in the MASH to children who go missing and who are at risk of exploitation.
◼ Responses to children in need of help and protection out of hours.
Cllr Scott Edwards, NNC’s executive member for children, families, education and skills, said: "We are committed to improving the lives of children in North Northamptonshire and therefore committed to supporting Northamptonshire Children’s Trust to continue their positive journey of improvement."
Cllr Fiona Baker, WNC cabinet member for children, families, education and skills said: “Improving the life chances of our children and young people and ensuring they receive the best support and opportunities to help them thrive is a top priority for both us and our Children’s Trust.
“Our collaborative progress on this journey has been significant and we continue to move upwards in a positive direction. The implementation of the new case management system and recent focused visit to the Front Door is a great example of this, highlighting some strong areas of practice, helping us to achieve a safe and effective Front Door.
“Despite our challenges, there is lots of good work underway. There is no quick fix, but the work happening is innovative and with our strong workforce, can make a difference.”
The role of internal audit is to ensure the achievement of the organisation’s objectives and an overall opinion on the adequacy and effectiveness of the organisation’s risk management, control and governance processes. The trust oversees children’s services across both Northamptonshire councils and is currently forecasting a £21m overspend for the financial year – £9.5m of this will fall to North Northants.
Among the national factors contributing to the challenges in Northants is the increase in the number of children and young people in care, high inflation driving up placement costs and a shortage of suitable placements due to a rise in the number of children with complex needs.
Another key initiative - the Circle 2 Success project (Valuing care) – has seen social workers and practitioners, spending time assessing and identifying children who with support could step down from a high-cost residential placement to a foster placement or return home. This work prioritises improving outcomes by considering the individual needs of every child and young person and ensuring they are safe and supported whilst also supporting our financial position by ensuring placements represent good value.