Sandwell Council has delayed the launch of its social work practice pilot after an unannounced Ofsted inspection uncovered significant problems in its safeguarding services.
The West Midlands council planned to launch the practice, due to be led by social workers, this month as one of six areas piloting a scheme funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Responsibility for more than 1,000 looked-after children and care leavers has been transferred in the past three months by the other five councils – Staffordshire, Kent, Hillingdon, Liverpool, and Blackburn with Darwen – to GP-style practices run by charities and practitioner-led social enterprises.
However, Ian Jones, Sandwell’s lead member for children and young people, put the project on hold after the report of Ofsted’s unannounced safeguarding and looked-after children inspection was published on 13 January.
Although looked-after children’s services were rated adequate, performance on safeguarding was deemed inadequate. Inspectors also criticised managers for failing to consult the children who would be involved in the pilot and said there were “too many projects in place which have spread capacity too thinly in key areas”.
A council spokesperson added that the launch of the practice would be delayed by six months, and practitioners would focus on strengthening core safeguarding tasks in the meantime.
Sandwell was one of 17 councils in England, out of 150, to contact the DCSF in 2008 about taking part in the pilot scheme.
A DCSF spokesperson said: “We have made significant progress in setting up the pilots – the majority have now gone ‘live’. We are working closely with Sandwell to identify how best to progress the pilot in their area and they remain fully behind it.”
The DCSF will monitor the progress of the pilots over the next two years before deciding whether to adopt the system nationally.
The news of delays in Sandwell comes amid increasing criticism of the practice model.
The DCSF chose to pilot the scheme in an attempt to tackle high turnover in social work teams, after research showed that those who had a stake in an organisation were less likely to leave. As a result, independent practices could provide more stable and consistent support for children in care.
But the West Midlands Social Work Action Network (Swan) has called on social workers to boycott the practices in Sandwell and Staffordshire because it believes social workers “are being misled by the official documentation that they will be able to develop closer relationships with children in their care”.
Simon Cardy, a social worker and member of the West Midlands Swan steering committee, also criticised the “bonus culture” that arose out of running independent practices.
He said: “There is no evidence that social workers are frustrated entrepreneurs who need a profit motive or a bonus to do their best for children. The two pilots in Sandwell and Staffordshire are a distraction.”
Ian Parry, lead cabinet member for children and young people in Staffordshire, where a practice pilot opened in November last year, said: “The social work practice means the social workers can fit in with customer need, without having the perceived bureaucracy that may occur with conventional social work.”
The practitioners involved in the pilot also responded to the criticisms in a lengthy statement issued through the council.
They were “excited and enthused by the opportunity” to develop innovative services and praised the “forward thinking directors” at Staffordshire Council for allowing them to take it.
“We carefully considered our business and management structure and we were unanimous in our decision to be a ‘not for profit social enterprise’,” they said.
“We agree that frustrated social workers do not need profit-making incentives and bonus schemes to motivate them to meet targets and certainly consider our own service model as a reflection of this.
“We hope that what we are able to achieve will be a best practice example for future practice.”