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.
“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.
Other areas Ofsted said need to be addressed include:
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.”