Surrey Council is seeking a judical review against Ofsted’s decision to rate its children’s services as inadequate.
The council’s interim chief executive Michael Frater confirmed the council was challenging the inspectorate’s annual performance assessment last December.
Frater acknowledged that a critical joint area review of children’s services in July 2008 was a “fair judgement” but argued Ofsted had failed to recognise subsequent improvements, including a review of vulnerable children cases.
He said: “We were disappointed that Ofsted did not recognise our determination and capacity to improve.
“The impact this would have on our overall comprehensive performance assessment result, which should reflect the entirety of the services we provide to residents, seems disproportionate.”
The news came as Unison members at Surrey Council threatened to strike over what they claim is a “crisis” in children’s services.
At least 100 staff have voted to consider industrial action if the council fails to address “unacceptable” working conditions including high caseloads and a lack of administrative support.
Social workers and other employees claim that difficulties have been exacerbated following last year’s joint area review that rated the county as inadequate on safeguarding, services for disabled children and in its capacity to improve.
This led the Department for Children, Schools and Families to slap an improvement notice on the council. The notice – a final warning before emergency powers are invoked – lists 29 objectives, ranging from structural reform to reducing social worker vacancies. Failure to meet targets could result in some or all of the council’s children’s services being outsourced.
Surrey Unison claimed pressure to meet performance targets had led to some staff being bullied by managers and the suspension of two individuals.
Ian MacDonald, children’s services convenor, warned high caseloads and increased paperwork meant staff had less time for direct work with families, leaving children at potential risk.
“Social workers want to able to sit down with families without feeling they have to rush back to fill in forms by a certain time. They need space to do proper risk assessments or there could be another Baby P,” he said.
The union’s demands include an increase in administrative support and an agreement that no disciplinary action will be taken against staff over performance targets, given the current pressures.
“This dispute is primarily about staff wanting to provide a decent service for the vulnerable children of Surrey that they clearly feel they cannot do in the present situation,” Chris Leary, Surrey Unison communications officer said.
In response, Andy Roberts, Surrey Council’s strategic director children, schools and families, dismissed the view that there was a crisis in children’s services, calling this a “gross exaggeration.”
But he acknowledged that social workers were under pressure and said there had been an increase in referrals in the last three months following Baby P – reflecting the national trend.
He said a “detailed audit” of caseloads across the county had shown variable levels ranging from very high to very low, and promised to ensure greater balance.
Roberts said he was confident of meeting the targets set out in the government improvement notice, including a target of reducing the social work vacancy rate to 14% by March 31 and 11% the following March. He confirmed the current vacancy rate stood at 12%, and said posts had been filled by agency staff.
Roberts also confirmed that performance management arrangements had been “tightened up” since the joint area review, admitting that Unison “was not comfortable with this.”
“Following the JAR we have taken very robust action to ensure that the consistency and quality of social work is of the highest standards. As part of this we are looking at the performance of individual members of staff,” he said.
Roberts said he wanted to avoid the possibility of strike action and pledged to continue discussions with Unison.