An MP has called for Tameside's children's services to be taken out of the council's hands after Ofsted issued another scathing report on the department.
Andrew Gwynne, who represents the Denton and Reddish constituency, says the current state of the service – which has been rated ‘requires improvement’ since 2019 – is ‘letting children and families down’.
In its latest report looking at the ‘front door’ of the service, Ofsted said that despite promises by the council to address capacity issues, the response to some children ‘at immediate risk of harm has deteriorated’ since its last inspection.
‘Systemic delay’ in convening strategy discussions means that children are being left in ‘circumstances of unassessed risk for too long’, the letter by inspector Mandy Nightingale states.
Tameside council told the Local Democracy Reporting Service it recognises the ‘continued need to improve’ and is working with the Department for Education to create an improvement plan.
The report, which comes after a focused inspection of the service, is also critical of the leadership of the department – both at a professional and political level.
It states that, despite some recent changes, ‘political, corporate and operational leaders do not know their services and the impact for children well enough’.
Since 2018 there have been three different permanent or interim directors of children’s services, with Ali Stathers-Tracey being appointed in February.
In the same period there have been two cabinet members with responsibility for children’s services, Councillor Oliver Ryan, and deputy leader Coun Bill Fairfoull – who continues to hold the portfolio.
“Before this visit, leaders were not fully aware of the extent and impact of repeated contacts about children, the systemic delay in convening multi-agency strategy meetings and in allocating a social worker to assess risks and needs in a timely way,” Ms Nightingale states.
“For too many children, the risk of harm is not being considered quickly enough to agree actions and put in place safety plans to reduce risk.
“Greater Manchester Police are not always available to attend strategy meetings promptly and this delays the date of these meetings, adding to the risk that children experience.
“In most of the cases that inspectors reviewed, children were not allocated a social worker from the duty and assessment team in a timely way.
“Children are not always being seen by social workers promptly and this is potentially placing them at risk of ongoing harm.”
The letter adds that some children referred for suspected domestic abuse have their cases closed too quickly without a full assessment of the ‘potential risk they face’.
“For too many children, the delayed allocation of a social worker and frequent changes of social worker contribute to the weaker assessments,” Ofsted states.
“Children are not always able to build trusting relationships with their social worker and this impacts on their ability to share their experiences to inform what happens next.”
The new director, Ms Stathers-Tracey, has identified that the current improvement plan is ‘not fit for purpose’, Ofsted says, and she has commissioned an independent review across services to better inform ongoing service planning.
Andrew Gwynne MP has now publicly called for the government to intervene in turning the department around.
“It just cannot be right that Tameside children’s services is allowed to limp on with considerable issues for another year when both neighbouring Manchester and Stockport are now rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted,” he said.
“As a cross-borough MP how can it be acceptable that a child and family in the Stockport part of my constituency will get a much better quality of service to children and families in the Tameside part?
“Nor is this solely about money. Tameside council have, to their credit, tripled the children’s services budget in recent years, but Ofsted seem to have singled out the lack of political drive or understanding, together with corporate and operational failings in the department as the main blockage for change. And that’s a big worry for me.
“That’s why I’m calling on Tameside to voluntarily hand their children’s services over to an independent children’s trust.”
He added that Tameside needed a ‘pace of transformation’ that could take them to ‘outstanding’ in two years.
“I will be asking for a meeting with the Children’s Social Care Minister, Will Quince MP, to urge him to take all steps necessary to assist Tameside to improve this key council service, because at the end of the day the current situation is letting children and families down,” Mr Gwynne said.
Tameside’s children’s services have been unable to improve to reach a ‘good’ rating in the six years since it was rated ‘inadequate’ in 2016.
Ofsted says that after the last inspection in May 2021, the council pledged extra money to tackle capacity issues – but that an additional social work team was not established until ten months later.
Last June the executive cabinet agreed to invest an extra £461k this year, and a further £504k next year to improve the service.
However in the most recent letter, Ofsted praised the work of the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) which promptly identified children’s needs for early help and offered a ‘wide range of effective support’.
“Effective use of parenting support programmes and targeted early help has supported some families to change and improve children’s daily lived experiences and prevent escalation to statutory services,” Ms Nightingale said.
The council must now submit an action plan outlining how it intends to improve within 70 working days.
A Tameside council spokesperson said: “Following a recent visit from Ofsted to judge the effectiveness of our ‘front door’ arrangements within children’s services in Tameside, we absolutely recognise the continued need to improve at pace and accept the areas of development that have been outlined.
“We are unwaveringly committing to ensuring our children and young people are safe from harm and supported in a way that best meets their needs in a timely and efficient way.
“We are pleased that Ofsted have recognised the effectiveness of our targeted early help programme that successfully supports families to improve children’s daily lived experiences and prevent escalation to statutory services in the first place.
“We also thank Ofsted for acknowledging our hardworking social work staff, who have effective relationships with a range of agencies and work together to provide immediate protection for children where needed.
“With recent new senior appointments, our commitment to appoint a fresh, permanent social care leadership team and an increase in the number of experienced social workers, we are on track to further improve our progress and critically, protect our most vulnerable young people.
“We will be making our full response publicly available. Working with partners and DFE (Department for Education), we will deliver our improvement plan that will ensure we have a joined up approach that has the voice of the child at the heart of it, so we can deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families.”