Ofsted: Council’s progress at risk from reliance on agency social workers

Northamptonshire upgraded to 'requires improvement', but Ofsted warns that heavy use of agency social workers could harm further progress

Northamptonshire children’s services no longer faces the threat of being taken over by the Department for Education after Ofsted upgraded its rating from inadequate to requires improvement.

But inspectors have warned that the council’s heavy use of agency social workers could damage efforts to further improve services in the county.

The improvement follows a highly critical Ofsted inspection in July 2013 that found “serious and widespread” weaknesses in children’s social care that left many children at risk of harm.

In response the Department for Education issued a direction notice requiring the council to create a children’s services improvement board oversee efforts to address the failings and bring in outside support to help deliver change.

Ofsted’s latest inspection found there had been “much focused work” to improve services, including a better initial response to safeguarding concerns and the creation of previously non-existent dedicated services for care leavers.

Inspectors found “no children at significant risk of immediate harm” and said that the specialist multi-agency team Northamptonshire had created to work with young people at risk of sexual exploitation had reduced the threat of such abuse for looked-after children.

Agency social workers

However, Ofsted said the council still needed to make significant improvements; the most urgent of which is to address the heavy reliance on agency social workers, who account for more than 43% of practitioners and managers.

Its report said the high levels of agency staff, and the turnover this involves, undermines the effectiveness of the service with young people complaining about frequent changes of social workers and infrequent visits.

“Further improvements to ensure consistency, to focus on outcomes and to improve the quality of social work support will be substantially compromised if Northamptonshire children’s services continue to rely on temporary staffing to provide the vast majority of its frontline services to vulnerable children and families,” Ofsted warned.

Councillor Heather Smith, the cabinet member for children’s services in Northamptonshire, said: “Like many local authorities, we do need to get better at recruiting and retaining permanent staff so that children and young people get consistent support from their social worker.

Children’s trust

“The implementation of our children’s trust later this year will play an important part in addressing this issue as it will allow us to improve terms and conditions for permanent staff and reduce the current reliance on costly agency staff.”

Ofsted’s report said it was too early to judge if outsourcing children’s social care to the children’s trust would reduce the use of agency staff. It did, however, praise the council’s social work academy, which trains newly qualified social workers and has helped the authority recruit 49 permanent social workers so far.

Inspectors also urged the council to act quickly to address unnecessary delays in court work. It said that while the council had got better at completing legal proceedings on time it was still exceeding the 26-week target timescale, in large part because of poor communication between social workers and the authority’s legal services team.

Unprepared adopters

Other areas Ofsted said need to be addressed include:

  • Poor quality assessments, visiting patterns and plans for private fostering arrangements
  • Assessments of the needs of parents and unborn children are “not good enough”
  • A lack of response by social workers and first line managers to challenges from independent reviewing officers
  • Adopters not being prepared well enough, which has caused a substantial increase in pre-order disruptions
  • A spokeswoman for Northamptonshire Council said the authority hoped to meet with the Department for Education in the next couple of weeks to discuss whether the direction notice will continue.

    Alex Hopkins, the council’s director for children, families and education, said: “This new rating from Ofsted, while an important milestone, does not mark the end of our improvement journey and our hard work will continue to improve and deliver services for children and young people that we can all be proud of.”

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    3 Responses to Ofsted: Council’s progress at risk from reliance on agency social workers

    1. LongtimeSW April 28, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

      Pay permanent staff more? Reduce caseloads? employ more permanent staff with the savings from agency costs?

      Sorry – not that simple

      . . . . . is it?????

    2. Roselyn Thompson April 29, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

      Better wages is a factor, also institutional discrimination of staff from different background and disability and ability. Social working required better insight and management into it services. There is no need for poor assessment talk with the person and use your eyes and ear when assessing someone.

    3. david May 24, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

      No-one would deny that too many agency social workers are destabilising for any LA for a number of reasons but the only way to deal with this is to make permanent employment more attractive. This is not just about salaries but is about working conditions and unless these improve then more SW’s will move on. Caseloads are a major factor and unless LA’s can reduce these they will always be vulnerable to OFSTED because although SW’s work excessive hours and lots of unpaid overtime they can still struggle to do everything that is required.

      Northampton is also one of the dozen or so Local Authorities in the East of England who have signed a memorandum of cooperation where if a SW leaves that Authority and join an agency, they will not be offered an LA placement in the East of England via that Agency for 12 months. The purported motive here is to bring down the cost of LA’s employing expensive agency staff, but the consequence is also to trap SW’s in LA’s when they have had enough as well as preventing others from employing them. If the East of England Consortium are serious about reducing agency costs then they should simply tell agencies what the top rate is that they will pay, improve conditions for directly employed staff but don’t try to force staff to stay who would rather leave by preventing them taking on agency roles because this is clearly counter-productive, morally wrong and probably illegal.
      Whether we like it or not, agency SW’s are vital to the current situation and unless we can improve the conditions for directly employed staff this will continue.