05:00PM, Tuesday 06 March 2018
There was an energetic buzz among staff as I was shown around the Bath Road office of the Slough Children’s Services Trust (SCST).
The open plan office is lined with bright colours and posters and the staff look enthused and chatty.
The trust took control of Slough’s children’s services in October 2015, after Slough Borough Council (SBC) received an inadequate Ofsted rating in 2014.
Ofsted launched a fresh inspection between November and December 2015, just a few months after SCST took the reins. Having started from a very low base, it was rated inadequate – a sting for morale among staff.
SBC was criticised by Ofsted in several areas, including children left under the radar and brought into the care system too late, a lack of experienced and permanent staff members, poor case file recording and giving insufficient priority to children in need.
Chief executive Nicola Clemo said a lot of work was needed to turn the borough’s children’s services around.
“It was a very tough job from day one,” said the 62-year-old. “Whatever stone you lifted there was something underneath it that wasn’t in the right place.”
The trust has since adopted a focus on keeping children within the family whenever safe to do so and working out ways to iron out their issues in a flexible fashion.
Under the service, families call the First Contact department, which has 24 hours to assess the situation, identify risks to children and adults as early as possible and signpost them to the best people.
Another way families might first make contact is through Slough’s Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), launched in September 2016.
The hub, which has SCST, SBC, Thames Valley Police, the NHS, the Probation Service and others among its members, works to safeguard children by sharing concerns.
Family cases might be moved on from First Contact to the trust’s Early Intervention Hub, which works with families for at least 12 weeks and forms an action plan for them.
The Innovation Hub, an extension of the Early Intervention Hub, offers guidance and support to families with programmes including Slough PAUSE, which works with women who experience repeated pregnancies to help reduce the number of children brought into care.
“It’s so much more than just contraception, it’s about breaking cycles and lifestyle changes,” said Pause Slough’s practice lead Kath Hunt.
The innovation hub also includes a Department of Work and Pensions worker, mental health clinicians, domestic abuse workers and a drugs and alcohol specialist to try and cover a broad spectrum of issues.
One member of staff I spoke to works directly with male perpetrators of domestic violence who are below the criminal threshold, to help families rebuild themselves.
SCST’s Child Protection hub is where long term cases with higher risk levels, statutory care and court proceedings feature more regularly.
As I was taken to the team’s hub I noticed children’s car seats, spare clothes and toys at the side, which I was told were at the ready in case a child needed to be collected at short notice.
The team’s social workers aim to keep families together whenever possible, working with them for years in some cases, paying weekly visits and finding ways to change parenting behaviour.
Sadly, some children still have to be taken away from their parents, at which point they are moved on to SCST’s Children Looked After and Care Leavers department.
Social workers and mental health clinicians help children deal with the psychological impact of being away from their birth families.
The team looks for long-term solutions which can include children returning to their families, after working on their issues, or by using the trust’s Family Placement service, which covers fostering and adoption.
The hub has personal advisors who support care leavers, help them settle into independent accommodation, obtain university places, and generally ease them into adult life, assisting them with employment and training opportunities.
Head of SCTS’s Family Placement service Jackie Pape says that like local authorities across the country, the trust struggles to recruit enough foster carers, mainly because they do not know what it entails.
She says her team does a lot of ‘myth busting’ when questioned by people who think they are looking for 1950s-style nuclear families.
Fostering under the trust can include emergency, short-term or long-term care.
She urged anyone who has thought about fostering to contact the trust for more information.
Ms Clemo feels the quality of the trust’s social work is probably the biggest improvement, but freely admits more improvements are needed in terms of paperwork and record keeping.
As dull as it may seem, proper record keeping could be needed to stop something vital slipping through the cracks.
Ms Clemo has also called the trust’s relationship with the council ‘unrecognisable’, compared to the tense and frosty period when it first took over.
After its fifth and latest monitoring visit in January, Ofsted said that social work and young people’s care plans and reviews are improving but that there were still weaknesses in ‘management oversight’.
"Variabilities in practice are still evident. Children benefit from a range of support, but do not yet experience a consistently robust service in response to their needs,” the report added.
But Ms Clemo said the latest visits, which do not use definitive ratings, are ‘not using the language of inadequacy’ and feels confident SCST will move from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ after the next inspection, which was due this summer but was postponed for another monitoring visit to take place.
In February, Ms Clemo announced her plans to retire at the end of April to spend time with her daughter Rosie, who lives in New Zealand.
She added: “Part of me making this decision was seeing that the trust was probably in the best place it’s ever been since I arrived here and therefore could withstand a change of leadership.”
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