It probably came as no surprise to Coventry council that last week’s Ofsted report of its children’s social care services delivered an inadequate verdict.
Since the murder of four-year-old Daniel Pelka in March 2012, the service has faced intense criticism.
The subsequent serious case review, published in September 2013, found failures in record-keeping and information sharing.
This was followed by an independent review sparked by criticism of the serious case review by children’s minister Edward Timpson. That review, published in February, found a service dogged by high caseloads and poor supervision.
Now Ofsted’s three-week inspection has piled on the pressure, highlighting a long list of problems within Coventry’s social care services.
Although there are many problems for Coventry to address, one issue came up time and time again in the reviews and the Ofsted inspection: caseloads.
Coventry is, quite simply, drowning under a flood of cases. In the past two years caseloads have risen by 46%. In March 2013 it was handling cases involving 3,085 children, but at the end of February this year its active cases numbered 4,529 children.
The high volume of cases and a lack of people to handle them is a major problem for the authority, says Ofsted. “Social workers in the referral and assessment teams have very high caseloads, and this means that they cannot do their job properly,” notes the inspection report.
More cash to hire social workers
As a result the recruitment of more social workers has become central to Coventry’s recovery plans. The authority has found an additional £5.6m for children’s social services, most of which will be used to hire more social workers with the goal of making caseloads manageable.
“Many of the problems we face, particularly in the front line of children’s social care, is down to the fact of the unprecedented volume of work, which continues to increase,” said George Duggins, the cabinet member for children and young people at Coventry.
“We have already responded to this challenge by adding another team of social workers and we have funding to add more as part of the additional £5.6m because as a council safeguarding is one of our highest priorities.”
But even with the money in place, recruiting more social workers is going to be easier said than done.
Kent has been there. In 2010 its children’s social services were judged inadequate by Ofsted.
Today it has pulled itself back from the brink to gain an adequate rating and a crucial part of that improvement was down to addressing workload problems that meant some cases were not even being allocated.
“The bottom line about caseloads is you need enough social workers,” says Mairead MacNeil, director of specialist children’s services at Kent County Council.
“The primary thing you’ve got to do is acknowledge how many cases you’ve got and make sure the resource is sufficient – you’ve got to be prepared to pay for them.”
But bigger budgets in themselves don’t necessarily equal more social workers. “The difficulty is that yes it’s about finance and paying for them, but there are not enough experienced social workers, so it’s about recruitment and retention,” says MacNeil.
Filling gaps with NQSWs not an option
The nature of child protection work means that filling the gap with newly qualified social workers just isn’t an option.
“There are quite a few newly qualified social workers coming off courses, but they are not equipped to do children’s work for a range of reasons. They need protected caseloads for the first year and the reality is that the core of social work cases are about child protection and children in care, cases of a statutory nature that shouldn’t be held by inexperienced newly qualified workers.
“So the caseload has got to be commensurate with complexity and the capacity and experience of social workers. That sounds very simple in terms of equations but, actually, even if you have got the budget to fund them, many local authorities are having real difficulty in recruiting.”
Another problem is that more and more experienced social workers are looking to agency work rather than salaried posts.
“My belief is the recruitment market is shifting considerably,” says McNeil. “Because of the national shortage of good social workers, they can choose where they work so local authorities are chasing them and competing with each other and that means the costs are going up.
Agencies luring skilled practitioners
“You’ve also got the agency market. Most local authorities are using agency workers and as local authority pensions and other things that used to attract people to permanent work become less attractive, people are opting to do agency work and get paid considerably more per hour than they would by getting a substantive post.”
This recruitment challenge is even harder for inadequate-rated local authorities to tackle since fewer social workers want to work in a failing council.
The risk is that inadequate-rated councils get caught in a vicious cycle where a failure to recruit more experienced social workers means the problems remain, leading to more inadequate ratings and even bigger recruitment challenges.
“It is a very difficult cycle to break,” says MacNeil. “The costs to local authorities when they get the publicity around being relegated to special measures is that the resulting disaffection and loss of confidence of social workers means they very often lose a lot more staff at that time and it worsens the problem.”
Kent’s answer to this challenge was persistence.
“It’s a continuous process of recruitment, of putting the money in and making sure the sufficiency is there. Kent invested a lot of money in getting social workers, there were continuous rounds of recruitment so that quality improved and there was a more stable and permanent workforce. And that is ongoing.”
Good staff support, as well as higher pay
Higher pay alone, she adds, isn’t the answer. “It helps that you get a reasonable salary, but with this work people want to feel safe and supported and they will feel safe and well supported if their caseloads are reasonable.”
Having high-quality managers is another important consideration but they can be even harder to recruit.
Cornwall council, which was hit with two consecutive inadequate ratings from Ofsted before moving up to adequate in 2013, spent six months searching for a director of safeguarding of the caliber it felt it needed to fix the quality of its children’s social work.
You need, says MacNeil, strong managers who can not just manage but can also help social workers enjoy their work.
“You’ve got to drill down on the quality of social work, keep those caseloads under control, and have managers that are fit to support workers who are doing difficult work so that social workers can take pride in the work they are doing because they have the time and ability to do it.”