More social workers needed to sustain improvements at ‘inadequate’ children’s services

Ofsted found progress made by a community interest company to improve Sunderland’s performance was “vulnerable” due to staffing shortages

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Staffing problems pose a risk to improvements a community interest company has made since taking over an ‘inadequate’-rated children’s services, Ofsted has warned.

Together for Children, an independent company owned by Sunderland council, took on the local authority’s children’s services in April. In a monitoring inspection report published last week, Ofsted said progress made by the council and the company to improve care was “vulnerable” due to the fragility of the workforce.

“The reliance on a high number of agency workers is a risk to securing improvement for children,” the report said.

It said senior leaders were being “tenacious” in recruiting staff, and had recently hired 18 newly qualified social workers, eight other permanent social workers and five permanent managers.

High re-referral rates

Inspectors found the services still experienced high re-referral rates in their initial contact and referral teams. They said the timeliness of social work assessments was poor and the frequency of visits to children was inconsistent.

However, Ofsted found progress in a number of areas, including quality assurance processes and social work performance.

“This includes the improved use of chronologies, appropriate caseloads and children being seen within statutory timescales,” the report said.

“There is regular, recorded supervision and improvements in the quality of some assessments.”

Ofsted found social workers and managers spoke positively about working in Sunderland and the support they received. It said Together for Children was also reviewing all recent re-referrals into the service and taking appropriate remedial action.

Strong governance

Inspectors praised the company for progress the service had made since it had taken over.

“The new arrangements are supported by strong governance and backing from the local authority and partners. Performance management and quality assurance processes are increasingly effective in driving improvement in services, and there has been sustained progress,” the report said.

They found the council’s chief executive had also taken to steps to ensure all elected members understand the new delivery model and held regular performance clinics to scrutinise performance and hold officers to account.

“There is good evidence of sign-up to the new arrangements under TfC across the strategic partnership. The recently appointed chair of TfC has clear plans to ensure effective communication across strategic boards, including the improvement board, the TfC board, Sunderland city council and the LSCB,” the report said.

However, it added: “The quality of social work practice, the high level of re-referrals, and the fragility of recruitment and workforce stability remain key challenges for TfC in driving forward the improvement agenda.”

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