Surrey children’s director Andy Roberts has praised social workers after an Ofsted report today highlighted big improvements in the council’s safeguarding services since a critical joint area review (JAR) last year.
Roberts said the “most pleasing” aspect of the Ofsted report, which follows an unannounced inspection in mid-August, was that it showed children’s social workers were “doing a good job”.
Surrey was made subject to a government improvement notice, including 29 performance targets on the back of the JAR, published last July, which found that it was inadequate on safeguarding.
However, in today’s report, Ofsted said progress made since the JAR had “impacted quickly and positively in raising standards of practice within children’s frontline services”.
Child protection enquiries were “thorough, timely, carried out by a qualified social worker and supported by joint agency working”, it said.
Staff ‘well supported’
All assessments seen by inspectors were at least adequate and the majority were good, while staff were regularly supervised and reported that they were “supported well and have appropriate training opportunities”.
Ofsted listed three areas for development, but none where priority action is required.
Roberts said Surrey had taken a three-stage approach to improving safeguarding. To start, it reviewed 4,500 case files, which led to a rise in children going into care and in those subject to child protection plans.
In the next stage, Surrey changed management structures and introduced new procedures that enabled it to “go back to basics”, said Roberts.
For example, senior managers now examine a sample of case files every month to “check the right decisions are made”.
Roberts said the final stage would be to make Surrey a “national model for the way services ought to be delivered”.
Roberts stressed the changes were “not rocket science” or a “silver bullet”, and much of the improvement was due to “hard work and a focus on what needs to be done”.
Surrey also changed the structure of its area assessment teams, creating four smaller teams rather than the previous two large ones.
Problems in one team
Ofsted said problems remained in one of the teams, which had a “high staff turnover and a history of insufficient and inconsistent management intervention”.
Roberts declined to identify the team, but said the Ofsted report “didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know” regarding the problems.
“We have put in new management at one particular office and brought in additional social workers as well as extra admin support,” he said. “Staff morale took quite a dent after the JAR.”
Surrey’s senior management team has also changed dramatically since the JAR. Roberts is the only senior director still in post, a new chief executive was appointed in April, and only one of 12 managers at the top of the children’s social services directorate remains from the old structure, although management in education has stayed largely the same.
Roberts also called for more co-operation in children’s services from Unison, the public services union, which has been threatening to ballot children’s social workers to take strike action over claims of excessive workloads.
“I would hope they would like to join me in congratulating staff on doing a good job,” Roberts said. “I’m not complacent – I’ve got a challenge, as do most directors, in recruitment. But I want Unison to work with us to ensure we recruit and retain the best.”
Surrey’s children’s social work vacancy rate stands at 9%, but another 16% of posts are filled by agency workers, who cost an average of £20,000 more per year to employ than permanent staff.
Roberts said the Ofsted report would “send a message to anyone who wants to work here that the problems are behind us”.
Surrey has also closed 500 children’s social services cases so it can focus resources on those most in need.
Like most councils, it has experienced a surge in referrals since news of the baby Peter case broke in November 2008.
The number of children subject to a child protection plan has increased by 14%, to 564, since 1 November 2008, and Roberts said the council had also seen increases of “10 to 20%” in care proceedings and the number of children taken into care.
Roberts said Surrey had closed the 500 cases after an analysis of case files found that “sometimes social workers had a case open that they didn’t need to deal with”.
Surrey since the JAR
What the JAR said in July 2008
Poor quality and poor timeliness of initial and core assessments; high numbers of unallocated cases awaiting children in need assessments; poor performance management with too limited auditing of case files.
Inconsistent provision of preventive services across the county.
What Ofsted found in August:
All contacts are seen by a manager within 24 hours. Cases sampled demonstrated that appropriate decisions on incoming work are made in accordance with statutory timescales.
Frontline staff report significantly improved senior management support since the JAR. Staff reported they are supported well and have appropriate training.
In cases sampled, children, young people and their carers are actively involved in assessment and care planning processes.
There were no unallocated child protection or looked-after children cases.