Ofsted issues warning over ‘unmanageable’ caseloads

Watchdog says quality of leadership is vital to supporting social work and turning around poor performing services

Picture: eaglesky/fotolia
Picture: eaglesky/fotolia

Ofsted has warned councils they need to tackle social worker caseloads that are “too high”, after identifying it as a common problem in poorly performing authorities.

The watchdog said too many social workers were “pressing on in conditions that are unacceptable” as its annual social care report revealed concerns over caseload levels have been found at 14 councils inspected since January.

Unmanageable workloads robbed social workers of the time they needed to devote to children and were a common feature in ‘inadequate’-rated services, Ofsted said.

Good quality leadership was the “single most important” factor in improving services, with the best leadership teams having created environments for social workers “to flourish”, it added.

“When social workers work for good leaders and managers, they work in an environment where they feel fully supported. Because of the way that leaders and managers behave, staff feel confident. A culture of openness and transparency means that social workers feel more responsible as well as more able to reflect,” the report said.

“Social workers need time to spend with the children and families on their case list. They need a place of work that makes it possible for them to exercise their profession at the highest level. They need managers who trust and challenge them in equal measure.”

Common features of ‘inadequate’ services

  • Children had too many changes of social worker
  • Social workers’ ability to practice impacted by high caseloads
  • Visits weren’t always undertaken within timescales
  • When children were seen, they weren’t always seen alone
  • Assessments not done or took too long to complete
  • Plans to reduce harm to children were subject to drift and delay
  • Insufficient management oversight and supervision of social workers
  • Poor practice remained unchallenged

Ofsted has now inspected half of all local authorities in England under the tougher single inspection framework introduced in November 2013. Every local authority is expected to be inspected under the framework by the end of 2017.

The proportion of authorities receiving “inadequate” ratings rose five per cent last year, with child protection the service area that performed poorest.

However an analysis by the inspectorate found no significant link between ‘inadequate’ ratings and size, deprivation or funding. Providing outstanding services was possible “regardless of context”, the report claimed.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said the findings showed these factors “cannot be used an excuse” for poor performance.

He said: “If some authorities can succeed in difficult circumstances, so can others.

“As I have said many times before, the driving factor that makes change happen at pace is good leadership. Areas that are letting children down must look to their higher performing counterparts with urgency, and follow their example.”

Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “We are pleased that the correlation between good and consistent leadership in creating the conditions for success has been recognised as has the good work taking place in many local authorities to improve outcomes for children and their families.

“It is also helpful to know what outstanding looks like, although what works in one area may not work in another. The quality of leadership and social work and sustained investment in early help all have a critical role in achieving great services.

“That a quarter of the local authorities inspected so far are deemed to be inadequate is concerning, but this highlights the challenging times we are in – funds are reducing, particularly in terms of early help services, demand for help and support is increasing as is public scrutiny. It’s easy to take an inadequate judgement at face value but the services we lead and deliver are much more complex than that, as is the improvement process.”

Ofsted launched the report alongside a consultation document proposing changes to the way services inspected. The consultation asks for views on a new common inspection framework being proposed for all social care inspections and a tiered approach to the intensity of inspection based on a council’s past performance.

Ofsted said the changes aimed “to improve the quality, proportionality, and impact” of inspections. The consultation closes on 9 September.

4 Responses to Ofsted issues warning over ‘unmanageable’ caseloads

  1. LongtimeSW June 28, 2016 at 11:53 am #

    No shirt Sherlock!

    Caseloads too high? Include IT breakdowns, working late and weekends, worker fatigue and the focus being ‘value for money’ rather than quality, alongside reduced early help/closed familycentres etc. being ignored by senior management as a contributory factor.

  2. Lyla June 28, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    Its about time this extremely pertinent issue which is readily overlooked by many levels of management, was highlighted as a significant factor in compromising the quality of social working provided to vulnerable service users and their families.
    It is paramount that the unrealistic expectations imposed upon social workers of case managing unmanageable complex caseloads; is also brought to the forefront and highlighted by the HCPC pertaining to the Adult Care arena.
    The mind boggles that numerous local authorities have been enabled to undertake an oppressive stance which places social workers and their vulnerable service users at risk, by enforcing unrealistic expectations. Sometimes this is geared towards meeting targets while the need to ensure a duty of care is readily disregarded, which I have found to be particularly prevalent within authorities where social care managers are offered performance related pay.
    As has been evidenced over the years and experienced by many social workers; the very same managers who are happy to dish out allocations with a blatant disregard for good social work practice, are quick to either distance themselves from or cover up any dastardly occurrences that come about as a direct consequence of work overload and stress while scapegoating social workers for their own misdemeanors. Its time the managers and local authorities who readily allocate unacceptable levels of case work to social workers were held directly accountable for the consequences. Its also time the Standards for Employers for Social Workers became a functional pre-requisite for all local authorities with a clear line of accountability for those failing to listen to the social workers who are bullied and intimidated by management simply for highlighting concerns about quality of work, risks and accountability as a consequence of an overload of work.
    This is a grossly unacceptable practice that undermines the opportunity for social workers to maintain and uphold good social work practice and creates a fundamental anomaly for social workers on the HCPC register who readily tick the box confirming they
    continue to meet the HCPC’s standards of proficiency for the safe and effective practice of your profession; in the full knowledge that this is highly unlikely due to being allocated an ‘unmanageable caseload’ without their expressed consent.

  3. Tom J June 28, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    I can see the statement; ”no significant link between ‘inadequate’ ratings and size, deprivation or funding” as being music to the ears of my local Tory MP who is constantly calling for further cuts to Local Authority budgets. I can also hear people saying ”why am I paying and extra 1.5% council tax if it makes no significant difference?”

    However, my experience tells me that this is not the full story. For example; when a Local Authority invests money in funding people to gain a social work qualification they gain in the long term from a committed member of staff and save on agency pay. However, putting in a one off cash injection following a crisis often does little in the long term.

    So yes Leicester City can sneak through with great organisation, team mentality and managerial experience, but realistically no matter how hard they try, Wrexham FC are not going to get into the Champions League final anytime soon with their present level of spending.

  4. The voice of despair June 29, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

    It may be because we have a Chancellor with no experience, training or qualifications in economics that this government continuously fails to join the dots on what is really a very easy formula…… cuts to LAs budgets = cuts to staff = increase caseloads = reduction in service quality. There is a limit to what the worlds greatest manager can achieve without having the necessary resources at their disposal.

    I wonder if this will mean increased registration fees….let me think!