Ofsted says children in the Bradford district have been left "at risk of harm" due to "widespread and serious failures across all areas" of Children's Services.
This was one of many damning findings made by inspectors who have again found Bradford Council' to be “inadequate.”
Ofsted says in the most recent inspection of the Council’s Children’s Services “the experience and progress of many children have declined” since the Council was last judged inadequate in 2018.
Poor leadership, a shortage of permanent social workers and increasing pressure on the service are all highlighted in the report.
And Council bosses have “failed to understand the scale of improvements needed.”
Ofsted inspectors visited Bradford in November 2022, but the report has just been published today.
It will be the last inspection of the Council before Bradford’s Children’s Services is removed from its control. From April, the Service will be run by an arm’s length Children’s Trust due to the Council’s painfully slow efforts to improve the service.
The report says: “There are widespread and serious failures across all service areas. This leaves children at risk of harm, leaves some children in situations of continued harm, and, for many children in care, unnecessary and prolonged delays in achieving permanence.
“While some progress has been achieved in some discrete areas, overall the pace of these improvements has been very slow.
“Corporate leaders continue to lack understanding of the scale of improvement required and what actions, time and resources are needed to make improvements happen.
“This has had a negative impact on progress, particularly in relation to recruitment of staff at all levels. The delays to these improvements have led to a lack of confidence in children’s social care by partner agencies, and an inability to provide social workers and managers with an environment where they can practise safely and effectively.”
For years, the high turnover of social workers, and a reliance on agency staff, has been cited as one of the biggest issues facing the beleaguered department.
On this issue, the report says: “Social work practice is adversely impacted on by high staff turnover and high caseloads.
“Despite the best efforts of social workers, children are unable to develop meaningful relationships with their social workers due to the constant churn of staff. Gaps in children’s records mean that newly allocated social workers do not have an accurate understanding of children’s circumstances or children’s plans.
“Some children and their families have to retell their story multiple times. Caseload pressures have resulted in many children not having an allocated worker for periods of time.”
The report adds: “The response to immediate safeguarding concerns is not timely or effective for all children. For some children, delays in the decision to hold a strategy meeting leave children in situations of unassessed risk.
“Assessment quality is negatively impacted by the high social work turnover and workload pressures. Too many children are exposed to repeat episodes of harm and multiple interventions.
“When children go missing from home and care, return home interviews are offered to all children, and missing co-ordinators offer a consistent response to children and their families. Their effectiveness is reduced as recordings of the interviews are not all of a good quality for some children, and the findings do not consistently read across to influence the child’s safety plan.
“The rising numbers of children entering care in Bradford, many unplanned due to crisis, mean that senior leaders are struggling to meet their sufficiency duty. An increase in children who require specialist provision that can support complex needs is adding further pressure on a placement system already under immense pressure. The local authority has very recently implemented a sufficiency strategy to address shortfalls. However, it is too soon for this to have had an impact.
“There has been insufficient senior leadership grip on residential services until recently, resulting in some children experiencing instability and multiple moves due to poor matching and poor care planning.
“Children who live in local authority children’s homes experience multiple changes of staff and changes of social worker, which mean that they do not have consistent, reliable relationships with adults.
“The inspection identified a small number of children aged under 16 living in unlawful placements.
“There are multiple factors which have contributed to the overall deterioration in services to children and their families.
“Long-term instability in the senior leadership team, including at the Director of Children’s Social Care level, has resulted in the absence of a clear vision and an incoherent approach to improvement work.
“Corporate leaders have consistently failed to understand the scale of improvements needed and have failed to comprehend the time it will take for services to improve.
“Improvement has been severely restricted by obstacles to funding, which have delayed recruitment in particular.”
A rare positive point in the report said: “Social workers spoken to during the inspection reported recent improvements in the visibility of managers and reflected on a greater sense of calm and clarity of direction.
“It is evident that social workers are committed to doing their best for children, but it is also evident that staff morale has been adversely impacted on by working in a very challenging landscape.”
After the report was published Kersten England, Chief Executive of Bradford Council, who will be retiring from the role this Summer, said: “There has been a huge commitment and investment in implementing the improvement in children’s social care and Ofsted acknowledges that there have been some small recent improvements under the leadership of the newly appointed Director of Children’s Services. We know however that much more is needed. This is why the Council, along with the Government’s Children’s Commissioner and the Department for Education, took the decision to establish a Trust to manage children’s social care services.
“The Bradford Children and Families Trust will provide a strong basis for our dedicated team of staff to continue to improve services for children and families across the district. It will provide clear direction and the opportunity to draw on resources and expertise nationally so that we can make improvements for children and young people sooner.”
Marium Haque, Director of Children’s Services, said: “We know that children and families deserve better. We have been very open with Ofsted about the challenges that our children’s social care services face both in terms of the improvements we have made and the areas we continue to work on. We recognise what this report says about the pace of improvement and we have already taken steps to bring about changes.
“The recruitment of social workers is a high priority for us. Our social work academy has been set up to support the recruitment and training of newly-qualified and experienced social workers. In addition, we are working in partnership with Bradford University to deliver a Master’s degree in social work.
“We have worked closely with the Department for Education and with the Government’s Commissioner to accelerate improvement. We have revised our improvement plan and are delivering on it under the oversight of the refreshed Improvement Board. We will continue to build on this work so we can make the improvements required.”
Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, Leader of Bradford Council, said: “We know that the pace of improvement in children’s social care services has been too slow since 2018 and fully accept Ofsted’s findings. Everyone is focussed on trying to speed up the pace of change.
“This is why we have been working closely with the Government’s own Commissioner and why we are setting up an independent Trust to manage children’s social care services from April.
“This will provide a fresh start for the team who have at their core the firm desire to make positive changes for young people.
“It is our priority that children get the best services. The Council has invested substantially in children’s services in an effort to speed up the pace of improvement. The Council will continue to work with partners, and with the new Trust to make sure that the investment committed is used to achieve the best outcomes for children.”
Councillor Sue Duffy, Portfolio Holder for Children and Families, said: “We know that improvement has not been fast enough and that this isn’t good enough for our district’s children. We understand that and will keep working hard to embed and sustain improvements.
“We believe that moving to a Trust will be a step change in accelerating the improvement that we urgently need to see. Our district’s children and families deserve the best we can offer, and our shared ambition with the Trust is to deliver that. The report acknowledges how committed our social workers are to Bradford and that they recognise that things are calmer and clearer under the new leadership of Director of Children’s Services, Marium Haque. We really appreciate the job they do for our district’s children.”
Keighley & Ilkley MP Robbie Moore said: "Today’s Ofsted report marks a dark day for our District. It is a damning indictment of the leadership at Bradford Council and reconfirms what I have been saying about the Council's wholly inadequate leadership for months.
"The report has evidenced “widespread and serious failures” across every single area of Children’s Services in our District, with Ofsted specifically stating that since their 2018 inspection "corporate and senior leaders have failed to improve services, and have overseen further decline”.
"It is particularly striking that one of Ofsted's key recommendations for improvement is a direction that ‘Council and corporate senior leaders should fully discharge themselves from their role as corporate parents”.
"Shockingly, this report states that decisions made by Council leadership have put children “at risk of harm”. This is an absolute disgrace - and worst of all, shines a light on the fact that even after the tragic death of Star Hobson, the council's corporate leadership continued to fail.
"Today’s Ofsted report firmly concludes that failures within Bradford’s Children Services lie at the door of decision makers and senior leaders. It is beyond belief that the Chief Executive of Bradford Council, Kersten England, has been allowed to remain in her post for so long given she first came here in 2015 and since that time has overseen a complete decline and failure to uphold and improve the Council's most basic responsibility – the protection of our children.
"Council leadership has also been exceptionally poor both at a corporate level and through political direction. The main role of a Council Leader is to hold senior executive officers to account and set a clear direction for the improvement of council services. Bradford Council leader Susan Hinchcliffe has failed to do both. In fact, she even thanked Ms England “for all she has done for the Bradford District over the past 8 years” and praised Ms England's efforts for the District as “tremendous” when responding to the Chief Executive’s retirement announcement. I am once again calling on both leaders to resign with immediate effect.
"All in all, this report shows that the government's decision to strip Bradford Council of Children's Services and establish a new Trust structure last year was absolutely necessary and going forwards it is crucial that this new Trust functions effectively. That means new leadership, a new cultural direction and a new strategy for protecting some of the most vulnerable in our society - our children.
"Let us never forget that behind each and every one of these failures is a child whose life has been negatively impacted by those at the top of Bradford Council and whose future has been put at risk."