The Scrutiny Support Officer presented the draft report detailing the findings of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel following its investigation into Safeguarding and Children in Care (Looked After Children).
Children in the care of the Local Authority were one of the most vulnerable groups in society. The majority of children in care had suffered abuse or neglect. In 2015, it was reported to the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel that, since 2009/2010, Middlesbrough had had significantly more children in care and requiring protection plans, than all other North East local authorities and most of its statistical neighbours.
The Scrutiny Panel investigated this topic over the course of seven meetings and visits to Middlesbrough's secondary schools were also undertaken by a sub-group of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel.
AGREED as follows:
1. The following conclusions would be included in the Final Report:
a) Services for children in care are provided through a mix of in-house Local Authority provision and commissioned services - from providers in the private and voluntary sector. The Local Authority views the commissioning process as an important mechanism for meeting the diverse needs of children in care. The commissioning process includes the assessment of need, the development of a plan to meet those needs, the procurement of services and then the comprehensive monitoring and reviewing of those services, which results in an audit trail. It is evident that there is a commitment to working in a child-centred way - the views and experiences of children and young people inform the commissioning, planning, delivery and evaluation of services. When complete, the Market Position Statement will provide details of existing services, identify gaps in provision and outline future demand. Once developed, it would be beneficial for the Market Position Statement to contain measures and strategies that will be used to - develop a shared perspective of supply and demand for services and seek active cooperation of providers.
b) In Middlesbrough, there is a strong focus on providing placements that are stable and work well for children and young people. Placement stability is good with placement breakdowns being low, which in turn is a critical success factor in respect of improving outcomes for children in care. Good working practices are in place to ensure children and young people live in homes that meet their needs and provide safe and stable care for them. In Middlesbrough, children in care are supported to develop secure attachments with their carers and there is a strong commitment to placing brothers and sisters together. Furthermore, the Local Authority facilitates and supports children to maintain relationships with their families and other people who are important to them, however, this is a complex area of work and arrangements require careful consideration. Placement stability is supported by good matching, high quality assessment and planning, regular supervision and comprehensive training. Increasing placement stability for children in care is the major driver for much of the improvement activity in Childrens Services.
c) The role of the Local Authoritys Virtual School is to ensure that effective systems are in place to improve the educational experience and outcomes for children in care. The Virtual School has responsibility for ensuring all children in care have a Personal Education Plan (PEP), which is an evolving record of what needs to happen for children in care - to enable them to make expected progress and fulfil their potential. In respect of the PEP process, further action is required to ensure that - the PEP process is streamlined, PEPs detail specific steps that inform pupils what it is they need to do to progress, social workers undertake a central role and information is included on how each school uses the pupil premium to raise the attainment of children in care - evidence demonstrates the benefits of additional tuition and one-to-one support.
d) In Middlesbrough, evidence suggests that early interventions have a positive impact on children in care at primary school and it remains a consistent theme that, by the end of KS2, children in care achieve broadly in line with the wider cohort of children in Middlesbrough schools. To ensure attainment levels continue to increase, the sector would benefit from a review being undertaken of the support that is offered in primary schools with findings being analysed to implement best practice across the sector. Good practices, that promote the educational achievement of children in care, are evident throughout the secondary school sector. At KS4, Middlesbroughs children in care achieve better results than their looked-after peers across the country and maintain a year-on-year rise in achievement. However, the number of Middlesbroughs children in care achieving 5 A*-C grades (including English and mathematics) needs to be improved. There is a need for further work between the Local Authority and the secondary school sector to discuss, formulate, share and embed best practice across the sector - particularly in respect of improving the PEP process; ensuring a smooth transition between primary and secondary school; monitoring, recording, reviewing, reporting and sharing information and ensuring that the Pupil Premium is primarily used for additional tuition and one-to-one support.
e) There is evidence of collaborative working between professionals and services, which helps in promoting high-quality and consistent support for children and young people in care. However, partnership working could be further enhanced by the implementation of a joint working protocol and a system, which is used across partners, for tracking the progress of individual childrens cases - such as CPOMS, which is a revolutionary software application for monitoring child protection and safeguarding issues.
Health and Wellbeing
f) The Local Authority has a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children it looks after; this includes the promotion of the childs physical, emotional and mental health. In Middlesbrough, the health needs of children and young people who come into care are well considered and met through timely and thorough health assessments. There are good arrangements in place to maintain the health of children and young people in care and this is supported by 2014 data collected in respect of health checks. However, challenges and delays are experienced for accessing services for children in care placed out of the area. Work needs to be undertaken to ensure that children, who are placed outside of Middlesbrough, receive timely access to appropriate health and mental health services.
g) The contribution of health services is good. There are dedicated highly skilled professionals from the South Tees NHS Foundation Trust and the South Tees Clinical Commissioning Group whose primary role is to promote the health and wellbeing of children and young people in care and those leaving care. The co-location of the Specialist Nurse for LAC and the LAC Practitioner for CAMHS, in the Pathways Team, is strong practice and must continue - as it is a fundamental/crucial integrated service that results in care leavers being able to access services quickly and when they need them most. Evidence suggests that schools would benefit from being able to access expert advice and guidance from the Specialist Nurse for LAC and the LAC Practitioner for CAMHS. Some secondary schools highlighted that there is a demand for mental health services and expressed concern in respect of the lack of provision available to promote the emotional and social wellbeing of young people. This issue warrants further investigation by the Health Scrutiny Panel.
h) The Local Authority uses the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) to assess the emotional wellbeing of each child in care. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) play a crucial role in assessing and meeting the needs identified as part of the SDQ screening process. In Middlesbrough, whilst the SDQs are being completed, evidence suggests that the questionnaires are not being utilised. Measures must be implemented to ensure that SDQ information is used and analysed effectively. SDQs are fundamental in determining the scale of the emotional/ behavioural problems of children in care in the area, therefore helping to inform the appropriate levels of service provision. In the longer term, data from SDQ returns can provide an indication on how effective the service provision provided is in meeting the needs of children in care.
i) Adoption gives vulnerable children the greatest possible stability, in a permanent home with a permanent family. The Local Authority demonstrates a strong commitment to pursuing adoption. Adoption is considered at an early stage for all children who may benefit and parallel planning is well established. For children and young people, the planning and management of transition to permanent placements is thorough and their wishes and feelings are considered. The Local Authoritys adoption process is comprehensive and the length and intensity of the process is designed to test the commitment of prospective adopters. Local support and arrangements are in place to ensure the adoption process is a success and that outcomes are monitored; however, the systems for tracking the progress of cases need to be improved. A bid for funding has been secured, with a view to forming a Tees Valley Regional Adoption Agency. It is anticipated that the development of this agency will speed up matching, improve adopter recruitment, develop adoption support and reduce costs.
j) The Local Authority has successfully achieved adoption for children, despite this taking longer than national thresholds for some harder-to-place children. Every adoption has a different set of circumstances and the Local Authority always strives to get it right, even if that means going outside of the national thresholds - the right match is the Local Authoritys primary consideration. The Family Placement Panel is vital in the process and functions effectively in meeting adoption and fostering arrangements. However, the Local Authority would benefit from collating and analysing feedback from applicants - to support continuous improvement.
k) The Local Authoritys Fostering Service ensures that the welfare, safety and individual needs of children in care are central to the care provided by foster carers. Foster families play a valuable role in stabilising and caring for children for both short and longer periods of time. In respect of the Local Authoritys Fostering Service, there is a robust assessment process, careful matching and effective support in place to ensure placement stability. Positive feedback is received from foster carers in respect of the fundamental support network in place, however, there is need to further develop and support relationships between foster carers, social workers and the contact team.
l) The Fostering Service provides a robust retention system by ensuring foster carers receive high-quality supervision and support. However, there is a shortage of people willing to take on the foster carer role. The Local Authority recognises that its resource of foster carers is not sufficient to cope with demand and actions are being taken to address this situation, for example - the Local Authority has increased the allowances for foster carers so that they are in line with Independent Fostering Agencies (IFA). One of the best ways of recruiting adopters and foster carers is through networking and there is a need for the Local Authority to financially invest in order to recruit more foster carers, particularly for older children and teenagers.
m) For some children and young people, placement in a residential home may be a more suitable option than a foster home, for example - they may find it hard to cope with family-based life as a result of their experiences or they may have highly complex and challenging needs. The Local Authority is committed to ensuring it has a range of residential placements available, for children and young people, which deliver high-quality care to match each childs individual needs. Extensive work has been undertaken to improve the ratings of in-house provision and work must continue to achieve and sustain improvement for each home. The Local Authority is currently working with Darlington, Stockton, Hartlepool and Redcar in developing a Tees Valley Residential Framework Contract, which will commence from 1 April 2016. This will enable the authorities to control price, and improve quality, with all providers that successfully apply for the framework. In addition, £423,000 has been identified to purchase and secure a property that will be used as a residential home for children with disabilities - this will ensure that the Local Authority is in a position to offer in-house provision to this group.
n) A challenge for the Local Authoritys is to reduce the number of children and young people in residential care and increase those in family placements. The Local Authority is striving to achieve this reduction through a number of mitigation measures overseen by the Transformation Board, including increasing the number of foster carers and embedding the Return to Middlesbrough Project in mainstream provision.
Young People Leaving Care
o) The Pathways Team and the Transitions Team are committed to ensuring that the transition to adulthood is effectively and sensitively planned. The planning is person-centred and aims to ensure that the young person has the maximum opportunity to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life and make a positive contribution to their community. The co-location of professionals from a range of different agencies ensures that young people leaving care receive the necessary support required to achieve their full potential. The number of Middlesbrough care leavers in education, training and employment (ETE) is above the national average; however, work needs to continue to achieve a further increase in numbers. In respect of the feedback from care leavers, it was recognised that further work is required to ensure completion of the post-18 and post-21 questionnaires and the analysis of findings - to improve service delivery.
Professional Workforce of Social Workers
p) Middlesbroughs workforce of social workers is relatively stable and there are initiatives in place to retain staff. This stability enables social workers to develop meaningful relationships with the children and families they are working with. However, there is a need for the Local Authority to continue to recruit to vacancies - this will alleviate current caseload demands on staff, therefore improving capacity to undertake statutory visits within expected timescales. There is also a requirement for the Local Authority to undertake work to ensure all care plans are sufficiently specific and measurable to drive progress and enable effective monitoring and review. Furthermore, work is required to address the current demands on the under-resourced IRO Service - a review of the current staffing structure needs to be undertaken, with a view of recruiting additional staff. Furthermore, the need to work with other local authorities in the region, to identify and address recruitment and retention issues, is seen as crucial.
q) Although Councillors do not have the same level of direct involvement with services for children in care, they all share responsibility as the corporate parent for satisfying themselves about the quality and effectiveness of the system. Middlesbroughs Pledge demonstrates the Local Authoritys strong commitment to corporate parenting. The Local Authority recognises the importance of strong corporate parenting and embedding the voice of the child in care in local practice. The Children in Care Council (CiCC) provides a valuable mechanism for enabling children in care to have a voice in the decisions and priorities of the Local Authority. The CICC is well supported, mentored and encouraged by the Local Authority. To support Councillors in their role - formal training should be accessible, which provides an overview of the role and functions of the corporate parent and supports them to champion the needs and interests of children in care. Councillors should have access to ongoing training and regular briefings. Furthermore, there is a need for the Local Authority to develop practices to ensure corporate parenting responsibilities are considered across all services.
2. The following recommendations would be included in the Final Report.
a) That the Local Authoritys Market Position Statement contains detailed information on strategies and measures that will be used:
To develop a common and shared perspective of supply and demand for care services.
To seek active cooperation of providers.
b) That the Virtual School conducts a review of the support that is offered to children in care in primary and secondary schools and works to implement best practice across the sectors, using the sub-groups findings as a basis for evidence gathering.
c) That the Virtual School facilitates and supports the development of a forum, whereby designated teachers are invited to meet with key professionals from the Local Authority and the health sector to share best practice, expertise, take early preventative action and commission services.
d) That the Virtual School works with schools to facilitate and effectively manage an extended transition between primary and secondary education, ensuring children in care are provided with effective and seamless support.
e) That the Local Authority engages with schools to:
Actively promote the use of the pupil premium to access additional tuition and one-to-one support
Ensure that the pupil premium is primarily used to improve the educational attainment of those entitled to the funding.
f) That the Virtual School put measures in place to ensure:
That the PEP process is streamlined - each PEP being completed electronically and the document being held in one centralised location, enabling all the relevant people to access, develop, review and update the document as and when required.
That each PEP details specific steps that inform pupils what it is they need to do to progress.
That social workers undertake a central role in the PEP process (this links with recommendation h)
That each PEP contains information on how the school uses the pupil premium to raise the attainment of that particular child in care.
g) That the Local Authority works in partnership with CPOMS:
To encourage every Middlesbrough school to sign-up to CPOMS.
To investigate whether CPOMS could be used by the Local Authority to track the progress of individual child cases.
h) In respect of all the organisations involved in providing services for children in care - that a joint working protocol is developed that outlines the responsibilities of each professional, what each organisation can expect from the other, how the work will be managed and when and how information should be shared across organisations.
i) That the Local Authority works with the health sector to:
Investigate ways to improve access to services for children and young people placed outside of the Middlesbrough area, therefore, ensuring timely access to appropriate health and mental health services.
Implement mechanisms to ensure schools can gain access to expert advice and guidance from the Specialist Nurse for LAC and the LAC Practitioner for CAMHS - in respect of Middlesbroughs children in care.
j) That the Health Scrutiny Panel investigates the provision of services to promote the emotional and social wellbeing of all young people.
k) That the Local Authority implements measures to ensure that information obtained from strengths and difficulties questionnaires (SDQs) is used and analysed effectively to:
Determine the scale of the emotional/ behavioural problems of children in care in the area, therefore helping to inform the appropriate levels of service provision.
Provide an indication on how effective the service provision provided is in meeting the needs of children in care.
l) That the Specialist Nurse for LAC remains located in the Pathways Team.
m) That the feedback received from applicants, attending the Family Placement Panel, is collated and analysed to support continuous improvement in Childrens Services.
n) That the Local Authority reviews arrangements to ensure that working relationships are improved between foster carers, social workers and the contact team.
o) That the Local Authority financially invests in networking to recruit more foster carers, particularly for older children and teenagers.
p) That the Local Authority continues to work with childrens homes and that a working group is established to identify, discuss and implement best practice across the sector. The primary aim of the group being to achieve and sustain an outstanding status for childrens homes - using Ofsteds research and analysis documents. Furthermore, that Childrens Services facilitate Regulation 33 visits, therefore ensuring visits are undertaken regularly.
q) That the Local Authority develops a detailed action plan to improve the participation of care leavers in education, employment and training.
r) That the Pathways Team makes every effort to ensure completion of post-18 and post-21 questionnaires and that information obtained is collated and analysed in order to improve service delivery.
s) That the Local Authority:
Implements a recruitment campaign to actively recruit to the social worker vacancies.
Undertakes a review of the current staffing structure of the IRO service.
Works with other local authorities in the region to identify and address recruitment and retention issues.
t) That the Local Authority develops a more efficient monitoring system and parallel support mechanisms to ensure that all care plans are sufficiently specific and measurable to drive progress and enable effective monitoring and review.
u) That the Local Authority arranges formal training for Councillors, which provides an overview of the role and functions of the corporate parent and supports them to champion the needs and interests of children in care.
v) That the Local Authority implements practices to ensure corporate parenting responsibilities are considered across all services.
3. Subject to the inclusion of amendments to the conclusions and recommendations made at the meeting, the report would be submitted to the Overview and Scrutiny Board for consideration.