Council’s auditing resulting in ‘overly harsh judgements’, inspectors find

A monitoring inspection said an 'inadequate'-rated council was beginning to make progress after a 'slow start'

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A council is making “overly harsh judgements” about social work practice because of “variable” practice audits, an Ofsted inspection has said.

But there is now “consistent evidence of regular supervision” and morale is improving in Sandwell council’s ‘inadequate’-rated children’s services, a monitoring visit published last week to assess progress has found.

Inspectors said that while new quality assurance process were starting to ensure compliance with statutory timescales, they were not focusing enough on the quality of social work practice.

“Recommendations from audits are not always specific enough to inform social workers of the action they need to take. The quality of some audits has been variable, and in some cases overly harsh judgements were made, which did not take into account the recent improvements in practice,” the report said.

‘Slow start’

Overall, Ofsted inspectors said the authority had begun to make progress following a “slow start”.

A “significant focus” had been applied to growing the permanent workforce and caseloads were reducing towards a manageable level.

“Social workers report being well supported by their managers, and there is now consistent evidence of regular supervision, including group supervision, and clear management oversight of social work practice,” the inspection said.

It added: “Social workers are passionate about their work with children and they know them well. They recognise the efforts made to strengthen the workforce and reduce caseloads, and morale is improving. All workers, including agency staff, report good access to training and development opportunities.”

Thresholds

However, it noted that thresholds had not been “consistently applied” for children who became looked after and some children had been in inappropriate family arrangements for too long.

“Equally, some children have remained in section 20 arrangements for too long in circumstances where no one was effectively taking parental responsibility for them. These issues have now been recognised by the local authority, and a review of all children in private family arrangements and looked after under section 20 has recently begun,” the inspection report said.

It found 249 looked-after children had a care plan of long-term fostering which had not been through “any formal approval process”. The authority had put plans in place to review, amend and ratify these cases over the next six months.

Trust

Sandwell was rated ‘inadequate’ by inspectors in 2013, and it was announced last year that despite progress the government would force children’s services into an independent trust. The previous children’s minister, Edward Timpson, expected the trust to be established at the end of this year.

A council report in August said recruitment for a trust chief executive had failed as the field of applicants was “not sufficient”.

At the end of August the council voted to accept £2.6 million in funding from the Department for Education to help establish the trust. This would cover refurbishment costs, external advisors, secondments, paying non-executive directors and costs relating to IT.

Simon Hackett, cabinet member for children’s services at Sandwell Council said the visit had given the council a “clear direction” on what needed to be improved.

“The most recent visit by Ofsted has given us clear direction on what needs to be improved. We still have a long way to go and we will take this feedback and concentrate our efforts to work on the areas highlighted,” Hackett said.

He added social workers were passionate about the job and that morale in the council had improved.

“We have been able to recruit a number of permanent staff at all levels which has resulted in lower caseloads for social workers and better supervision provided by managers,” Hackett said.

“Making sure children in Sandwell are safe remains our number one priority and we will ensure our children’s social care service continues to improve.”

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