Wirral council’s children’s services has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted after inspectors identified “poor” threshold application was causing drift and delay for children.
In a report published today, inspectors said there had been “a significant deterioration in the quality of all services that children and young people receive since Wirral was last inspected”.
The children’s services were rated ‘good’ in 2011.
“Inconsistent and sometimes poor application of thresholds by both the local authority and partner agencies is evident at every point that children and young people come into contact with children’s social care,” the report said. This caused drift and delay for children, while others remained subject to statutory orders for too long.
It said a “culture of over-optimism often goes unchallenged” in the council.
“The quality of assessments and plans is too variable. Although some are good, too many repeatedly fail to consider children’s histories to ensure that all risks to children are identified. Plans are often based on an unrealistic optimism about parents’ capacity to change or their ability to protect their children, particularly for those children who experience domestic abuse and chronic neglect,” the report said.
Inspectors described some case recording as “so poor that it is not possible to tell how decisions have been reached or even what has happened as a result of intervention in children’s lives”.
Competing council priorities meant plans to restructure the service were delayed for a year. Even though the restructure has now been completed, “this has not yet resulted in the anticipated improvements”.
While the deficits identified in the inspection were known to the council, a “corporate failure” to recruit and retain a permanent head of service had “severely impaired” the capacity of senior leaders to address them.
Inspectors found how, despite significant investment in training, managers “do not clearly communicate good practice standards to social workers”.
Social workers’ caseloads, though not excessive, were often complex, and there were high levels of staff changes due to sickness and turnover.
However, inspectors praised how the majority of looked-after children benefited from “stable, good quality placements”. The inspection also found “significant improvements” in the number of young people leaving care through special guardianship orders, and improved adoption timeliness, meant more children were achieving permanence.
The council “urgently” needed to recruit a permanent head of service for children’s social care, and ensure thresholds were consistently understood and applied, Ofsted said. It also needed to provide regular supervision to social workers.
Julia Hassall, director of children’s services in Wirral, said she understood the pressure social workers were under, but the council “need to be absolutely clear on what is expected”.
“We need to create the right environment for our staff, and give them the right tools to do their jobs well, but also hold them to account when certain standards are not met. This goes for everyone, from the Chief Executive, myself, my management team, all social workers and every Council employee.
“We are taking immediate and urgent action to make sure our vulnerable young people are provided with the very best possible protection, which always has been and always will be our priority,” she said.
Eric Robinson, Chief Executive of Wirral Council, called the findings “unacceptable” and said an improvement board has been established.
“When I joined Wirral last year, it was clear that unprecedented levels of staff turnover in senior, key positions were having an impact on our social work teams. We have already taken steps to rectify the issue, and we are now going further, more quickly. New staff members are being recruited, new training programmes are being developed and we are taking urgent steps to implement Ofsted’s recommendations,” Robinson said.