‘Serious and widespread weaknesses’ – council children’s services slammed

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BCP Council children’s services
The “vast majority” of assessments made by social workers were “unfit for purpose”

VULNERABLE children have been put at risk by “serious and widespread weaknesses” in the BCP Council children’s services department, a scathing report has warned.

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Ofsted inspectors said work to identify youngsters at risk of harm was “not fit for purpose” and that they had to personally ask for 50 children’s cases to be reviewed during their visit due to fears for their safety, writes Josh Wright of the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

The council said it “accepts and regrets” the watchdog’s criticisms and its chief executive said addressing them had been made its “top corporate priority”.

Elaine Redding was appointed as its interim director of children’s services at the council in September following the departure of Judith Ramsden in July.

At the same time, prompted by government concerns, an improvement advisor was appointed in a bid to address issues within the department.

BCP Council has yet to have a full inspection by Ofsted since its formation last year but all three of its preceding councils had been rated as ‘requires improvement’.

The visit by a team of five inspectors last month was a shorter “focused inspection” with a letter sent to the council on Friday addressing its findings.

“There are serious and widespread weaknesses in the quality of children’s services,” inspector Neil Penswick said. “This leaves vulnerable children at risk of harm.”

A raft of concerns are raised in the letter, with children having their needs addressed neither “fully or in a timely manner” despite repeated referrals to the department.

The letter said the “vast majority” of assessments made by social workers were “unfit for purpose” and that they “lack sufficient evidence, analysis and challenge”.

The council was also criticised for putting too little focus on the longer term needs of children.

Inspectors were particularly critical of management within the department with assessments with blank sections and unchecked details being signed off as acceptable.

“There are serious concerns about the quality of management oversight,” the letter said, before adding inspectors had personally had to ask for 50 cases to be reviewed over “serious concerns” for children’s safety.

Mr Penswick added that children in care, and those who had recently left the system, felt “let down” by the council and had had “minimal” contact leaving them feeling “alone, isolated and unsupported”.

Education plans written by social workers were said to “include little of any substance” and there was also concern about the number of children being excluded from school.

Concerns were also raised about the near-25% rise in the number of youngsters being home-schooled in the past year and that there was not the capacity within the council to carry out the correct checks on them.

The letter added that there was “no evidence” it was challenging schools on the issue, amid fears schools could be “off-rolling” pupils by encouraging children to leave without excluding them to benefit the school.

The council was also criticised for an “over-reliance” on short-term staff with 55 agency workers employed at the time of the visit, while many of the others lacked experience.

Responding to Ofsted’s findings, BCP Council said it had been “working hard” since its formation to improve its work but said it still had “a long way to go”.

“This visit from Ofsted was not an inspection, but we are responding to their recommendations with the same seriousness and gravity as if it were,” it said in a statement.

“We know we have to improve rapidly if our services to local children and families are to meet the standards expected of us.”

Cllr Mike White, cabinet member for children’s services, said improving the department was the council’s “top immediate priority”.

He added: “It will stay that way until we have made the improvements we need to make.

“We have confidence in the new top team to deliver those improvements and as well as supporting them to the hilt, we will be holding them to account to do just that.”

Cllr White’s predecessor, Cllr Sandra Moore, who held the role from the formation of the council until October, said she would continue to support the council to make “critical improvements”.

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