Early help: whose responsibility?


Referrals to the local authority



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Referrals to the local authority


  1. In order to consider the application of local thresholds, inspectors examined referrals to the local authority. These included cases that did not progress beyond the point of referral and those that progressed to a formal assessment followed by statutory intervention then ceasing. Inspectors spoke to 62 referring professionals as well as social work staff who made decisions about these specific referrals. Over a quarter of these professionals said they struggled to understand and apply local thresholds. They were not always sure which cases should be referred to the local authority.

  2. In just over three quarters of the cases closed at the point of referral, this decision was considered to be appropriate. Professionals highlighted concerns about the child in the vast majority of these referrals. Children’s social care appropriately judged that the level of concern raised did not reach the threshold for statutory intervention. However, while statutory intervention was not required, children and families would have benefited from an early help offer. The opportunity to put this in place was missed for some.

  3. Almost a quarter of cases were closed inappropriately by children’s social care at the point of referral. In these cases:

  • risk was not well considered and action was not taken when it should have been

  • there was a re-referral for the same issue in the subsequent three months that could have been addressed with the information known originally

  • the referral quality was poor and the referral was closed without children’s social care speaking to the referrer to establish the reason for their decision

  • the case was closed without the completion of identified tasks.

  1. The quality of referrals varied, although most provided sufficient information alongside information already known by children’s social care. However, in a small number it was not clear why the referral was being made and what the concerns were about the child. This required further follow-up by children’s social care and demonstrated that not all professionals had a sufficiently well-developed understanding of how to make referrals. Where referrals were of a good quality they:

  • were timely

  • contained the following features:

  • concerns about the child and a rationale for referral

  • references to the locally agreed threshold document

  • clarity about how the concerns impacted on each child in the family

  • evidence that concerns had been discussed with the parent and consent had been sought and obtained

  • context and historical information, including the effectiveness of previous help

  • a balance between positive factors and risk

  • a summary of the views of other professionals

  • identification of any language barriers or the need for an interpreter.

  1. Almost two thirds of the referrals that progressed to a formal assessment and were then closed involved children who had been referred previously. In the 12 months before these referrals, one fifth of children had more than one referral with one child having been referred four times. This child had not been the subject of an early help assessment and no plan was in place to meet previously identified needs. Despite previous referrals and ongoing involvement of single or multi-agency work for a small number of children at the time of the referral, only one referral from the sample was supported by an early help assessment. This indicated that early help assessments were not being used effectively to assess and identify needs for all children.

  2. Professionals making these referrals clearly understood their responsibility21 to refer concerns about children’s welfare to local authority children’s social care. They understood that this was the basis of good information-sharing. What was not often explored was the consideration given to locally agreed thresholds and what support the child needed as a result of the identified concerns. Almost half of the referring professionals indicated that they took no further action when children’s social care closed the case. They saw their duty ending with making the referral and they did not seek to secure early help for the child. One professional indicated that they ‘keep referring until children’s social care accepts the case’; this was not an unusual response. In some cases, professionals referred issues that did not meet the statutory threshold and did not accept or understand the decision from children’s social care. In others, professionals did not understand how to escalate concerns appropriately when disagreeing with decisions made by children’s social care about next steps.

  3. Local authority staff and partners were overwhelmingly positive in their verbal accounts about training that enabled them to identify and respond to children’s needs. Almost all were confident about when referrals should be made to children’s social care. This confidence, however, was not apparent in practice where too many referrals were made to children’s social care without professionals considering the locally agreed thresholds and whether early help intervention would be more appropriate.

  4. When children’s social care undertook formal assessments and decided that statutory intervention was not required, practice in regard to securing support for early needs was insufficiently robust. For some children, social care took proactive steps to negotiate agreement from partner agencies to offer specific support to the family. In too many cases, children’s social care ended their involvement without securing appropriate support for children. Either partners were not advised of these needs or weak arrangements were tentatively agreed. Such examples of poor arrangements included partners agreeing to ‘keep an eye on things and re-refer if we are worried again’ or ‘school will monitor’. Such responses did not reduce the risk of future escalation and left children’s needs unmet.

  5. These examples demonstrate continued confusion about partnership roles and responsibilities. Some professionals are not always clear about their role and responsibility to intervene and support families when the threshold for statutory intervention is not met. Neither is it clear what role and responsibility statutory services have to ensure that children and families receive the help they need when it is not their statutory duty to provide those services.

  6. ‘Working together to safeguard children’ requires that for referrals:

‘Feedback should be given by local authority children’s social care to the referrer on the decisions taken. Where appropriate, this feedback should include the reasons why a case may not meet the statutory threshold to be considered by local authority children’s social care for assessment and suggestions for other sources of more suitable support.’

This element was considered as part of the thematic inspection and we found significant inconsistency in practice.



  1. Inspectors examined 84 referrals made to children’s social care that ended in no further statutory involvement. Of these, almost two thirds of referrers were provided with the outcome of their referral; a third were not. What was equally significant was that partner agencies did not hold children’s social care to account and seek feedback on referrals. Almost one third of these referrers confirmed to inspectors that they had not been informed of the outcome of the referral they made. Many had no expectation that they would be informed of the outcome. They saw it as their role to pass information to children’s social care to make decisions. A picture of poor cooperation, a lack of shared accountability by local agencies and poor compliance with statutory requirements compounds Ofsted’s concern about the lack of clarity of the levers available to pursue help for families with additional needs to those provided in the universal services. Our evidence from this inspection indicates that in 30% of cases examined not all children and families with additional needs were given help when they did not meet the threshold for statutory intervention. A question remains about who is responsible in such a scenario?

  2. Children’s social care identified half of all children referred as having needs that did not meet the threshold for ongoing statutory intervention but who would benefit from an early help offer. Some help was offered to many of these children through interagency discussion with professionals and with parents’ consent. For over a quarter of them, this opportunity was lost due to the poor coordination and shared accountability between agencies to ensure that children who need help are given support that meets their needs.



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