Ofsted condemns Tower Hamlets Children’s Services as ‘inadequate’

Tower Hamlets Children's Services are condemned as 'inadequate' by an Ofsted report conducted between 23 January to 16 February 2017. Politicians and council officers of all ranks are criticised for "... widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children who need help and protection in Tower Hamlets." One indicator of the severity of these problems is that "Insufficient scrutiny by the chief executive, the Director of Children’s Services and politicians has meant that they did not know about the extent of the failures to protect children until this inspection." The overall conclusion by Ofsted that Children’s services in Tower Hamlets are inadequate is from examining the following areas:
  • Children who need help and protection - Inadequate
  • Children looked after and achieving permanence - Requires improvement
  • Adoption performance - Requires improvement
  • Experiences and progress of care leavers - Requires improvement
  • Leadership, management and governance - Inadequate
You can read the full report here.

Sample extracts from the Ofsted report

(Paragraph numbers given where relevant).

Executive Summary

Some services have significantly deteriorated since the last inspection of children’s services published in 2012, when the local authority was found to be good overall with outstanding features. The Director of Children's Services (DCS) Debbie Jones took up an interim position in July 2015 before her permanent appointment in March 2016. Despite uncovering a deeply worrying picture regarding the services provided to children, there has been insufficient rigour by senior leaders in challenging weak management oversight. Performance management and quality assurance systems are not underpinned by reliable management information [See comments by Cllr. Julia Dockerill on this subject below]

The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection

p21. Too many child in need plans and child protection plans are inadequate. The objectives of the work are not clear, timescales are vague and children’s voices are not evident. p24. Children living with neglect, parental substance misuse or domestic abuse wait too long to receive appropriate help. p27. ... Inspectors found a lack of understanding of what constitutes a private fostering arrangement. Superficial assessments had failed to consider whether children had been trafficked or abandoned by their parents.

The experiences and progress of children looked after and achieving permanence

p34. At the time of the inspection, Tower Hamlets was looking after 333 children. For too many children, the decisions to look after them are not timely enough. p35. In most cases, recent decisions to accommodate children are appropriate. However, decisions are often made in an emergency and are not timely enough or effectively planned to respond to significant escalating risks while children remain at home. For example, the local authority reported that, of 22 children who became looked after in January 2017, only 10 admissions were planned. Three very young children had remained in a police station overnight, as there was no placement available. [LW emphasise] p44. The timeliness of initial health assessments is poor. For example, between April 2016 and January 2017 only 4.2% were conducted within expected timescales ... Performance of review health assessments is much better, at 85%, and both improvements to processes and an additional nurse are in place.

Leadership, management and governance

p79. Inspectors identified serious and widespread failings across the service for children in need of help and protection. Services have deteriorated in all areas since the inspection of safeguarding and looked after children services in 2012. Attempts to drive improvement have had little impact. Senior leaders have not accurately addressed critical weaknesses in management oversight or social work practice. As a result, elected members and senior leaders cannot be confident that children in Tower Hamlets are safe. p80. The Director of Children's Services (DCS) took up an interim position in July 2015 before her permanent appointment in March 2016. Despite uncovering a deeply worrying picture regarding the services provided to children, actions taken to tackle some of the deficits, such as a review of the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), workforce development, increased child-level data and an improvement and inspection board, have not been sufficiently systematic or effective in addressing the widespread concerns, and consequently children in Tower Hamlets have been left at actual or potential risk. Senior managers and leaders have not been successful in delivering the changes quickly enough to tackle the deficits in frontline operational activity. When service improvements have occurred, they remain fragile and, in some areas, the progress has been too limited or not sustained. In response to the inspection findings, the current senior leadership team has demonstrated a determination and commitment to improve services. p82. During the five months prior to the inspection, the improvement and inspection board, chaired by an external consultant, has overseen a wide range of practice issues through monthly meetings. The board has had limited impact. While board minutes evidence detailed discussions about data and audit findings, the board lacks a coherent, overarching strategic plan to drive the change required. This impedes the local authority’s ability to track and evidence progress. Service plans are in place, but they lack sufficient detail regarding the delivery of key targets. Leaders are not held to account for improving services. The lack of involvement in the board by the DCS, the chief executive and the lead member has limited its effectiveness and contributed to a lack of corporate ownership of the shortfalls in services for vulnerable children. This is a serious omission. p83. Senior managers have not been effective in addressing poor practice by first and second-line managers. An entrenched culture of non-compliance with basic social work standards continues to be a significant weakness. p87. The overview and scrutiny panel meets regularly and has appropriate cross-party political attendance. The panel has  a wide range of issues, including the Children and Families Plan, and the chair has led a comprehensive review on the ‘Prevent’ duty. However, scrutiny does not offer robust challenge to senior managers on the effectiveness of services for the most vulnerable children in Tower Hamlets. For example, the improvement and inspection plan has not been on the panel’s agenda, and members were not aware of its existence at the time of the inspection. [LW Emphasis]

The Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB)

Deputy Major Cllr. Rachael Saunders
Deputy Major Cllr. Rachael Saunders
  1. The board has an excessively large membership, limiting meaningful debate and effective decision-making.
The lead member [Deputy Major Cllr. Rachael Saunders] has not exercised her responsibility as a participating observer at board meetings since her appointment in May 2015, weakening her ability to scrutinise and hold the DCS to account. Board agendas are extensive, but are not sufficiently focused on the core business and key priorities. Note: LW has asked for the attendance record of Cllr. Saunders at the Local Safeguarding Children Board LSCB) meetings but these are not currently available. LSCB meetings include children and so documents are not published as with other meetings. 

Data inaccurate, unreliable or unreported

"I sit on the council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee, which is designed to shine a light on Tower Hamlets’ performance, " said Cllr. Julia Dockerill responding to the Oftsted reports findings. "In order to scrutinise the organisation, however, you necessarily must rely upon it for information and data, while looking to officers for guidance on the scope of their work. As Ofsted’s report advises, in the case of Children’s Services performance data was inaccurate, unreliable or unreported."

Illusion of activity simply camouflages inertia

Cllr. Julia Dockerill
"Tower Hamlets committees are a whirlwind of words, stats, figures, presentations, reams of paperwork and confected political rows. However this illusion of scrutiny distracts from any strategic focus on outcomes for borough residents. Similarly, officers often tell me that they cannot act on various ward requests because they are waiting to draw up a plan, get approval for a recommendation or go out to consultation on an idea – an illusion of activity that all too often simply camouflages inertia. Ofsted cites this sense of ‘chronic drift and delay’ in its own report. While it is intolerable in every area of the council’s work, it is surely utterly unacceptable when it comes to making decisions about the most vulnerable children in our community."

Lib-Dems call for independent peer review

Elaine Bagshaw
Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Poplar & Limehouse, called on the Council to establish independent peer review boards to work with Children's Services and the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) to ensure that these failures in governance are tackled quickly. ""This is an utterly damning report on the state of local children’s services. The children and families most in need of help and support have been failed by the local Labour Council and Lutfur Rahman’s previous administration," said Elaine.  

LW Comment

The Ofsted report is so unremittingly bleak and damning that it is not possible to accurately summarise its conclusions of fact or implications for the future of the Borough. The report is only 34 pages long and we would urge residents to read it for themselves. If this inspection into Children's Services had taken place during the Lutfur Rahman administration there would be some clear reasons why this situation is so bad. That the inspection took place during January and February 2017 leaves no-one with recourse to excuses. There are none. Will Tuckley, the Chief Executive, has said in a statement that both he and Debbie Jones, the Corporate Director for Children’s Services, take full responsibility for this report. Mayor John Biggs has accepted that the situation is unacceptable and made it clear to both the Chief Executive and the Corporate Director of Children’s Services that they must take immediate action to improve the service. More money has been pledged. But on reading the report it seems that money is only a part of the problem. The real problem is that council officers aren't doing their jobs and our elected representatives are not able - or unwilling - to keep a proper eye on them. LW has often spoken to Councillors who have expressed their frustration at not being able to affect change in the borough. Ofsted has shone its light on the problems in this specific area of local authority service in Tower Hamlets. It is frightening to wonder that if this lacklustre approach to public service has found in the department responsible for ensuring the well-being of those who cannot speak for themselves what is happening elsewhere? The corruption of Lutfur Rahman and his self-serving followers is no longer a reason for local authority failures in the East End. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets needs prompt and radical change if it is to serve its residents in future. LW has on more than one occasion called for the Borough to be broken up and its components added to neighbouring boroughs to cure the legacy of Tower Hamlet's First corruption. At the moment it seems that such a draconian step might yet be needed.

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