Social work morale ‘beginning to improve’ at strike-hit council, Ofsted says

Report finds higher engagement in social work workforce but improvements to service are "too slow"

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Ofsted inspectors have found improving social work morale in an ‘inadequate’-rated council that has been hit with a year of industrial action by its social work staff.

The watchdog said there had been “better staff engagement” by the new senior leadership team at Kirklees council, which was beginning to improve support to the frontline. However, a monitoring inspection found it was “too soon” to evaluate the impact on social work practice.

Kirklees council and its local Unison branch had been locked in a protracted industrial dispute since it was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in 2016. This culminated in a two-day walkout by social workers in July this year. The union wanted the council to act on caseloads, agency staff, bullying and poor IT systems.

The council has since entered a new arrangement where it is being run by Leeds council, with Steve Walker, Leeds’ director of children’s services, working as Kirklees’ interim.

‘Engaging staff’

Walker highlighted positive steps taken by the council in recent months, such as 24 permanent social workers being appointed since July, and good progress with a career development scheme.

Ofsted found: “Increased focus has been given to engaging staff and providing better support in order to create the right conditions for social work to flourish.”

Despite this positive development, Ofsted criticised the pace of improvement as “too slow”, with “widespread and serious failures” present in the first responses to children in need of help and protection.

“These changes are too recent to have made a difference to the services that children and families are receiving,” the report said.

The inspection focused on the new leadership’s changes to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), but found: “The action taken during this time has not led to the improvements anticipated, and children are being left in situations of unacceptable and unassessed risk.”

“Inspectors identified a deterioration in the management of risk to vulnerable children and in the quality of decision-making and assessment.” Ofsted also judged that social workers did not always receive high-quality, reflective supervision, and in some teams it had simply “not been taking place”.

It added: “In the majority of cases seen, managers’ application of the thresholds is inconsistent and inappropriate. There has been a recent focus on reducing the numbers of contacts to children’s social care and, while this has been achieved in data terms, it has led in a number of cases of children not receiving a social work response that meets their needs.”

Inspection had ‘narrow focus’

In a statement, Walker said the letter was “not as positive as I would have hoped”, but the findings were not surprising given the significant changes being made to replace the council’s Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub with a Duty and Advice Service.

“I was confident that, whilst the new processes may not have been embedded by the time of the visit, Ofsted would find that for the first time a strategic plan – agreed with partners – was in place to address the volume of work coming into the MASH. This had increased by 39 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

“Previous approaches had simply been to add capacity to the MASH, initially through employing two agency teams and then, when this was ineffective, through the addition of a ‘Step In’ team which complicated an already complex system,” Walker said.

He said the monitoring visit’s focus had been “very narrow” and time limited, which meant inspectors were not able to speak to key partners.

Walker was confident the council’s improvement plan would succeed: “As I know from my own experience in Leeds and other authorities, improvement journeys are not linear as new arrangements take time to implement and embed. I am confident that our strategy is the right one. We will not be moving away from it as it will deliver the positive outcomes that everybody wants for children and young people in Kirklees.”

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