Ofsted has warned councils they need to tackle social worker caseloads that are “too high”, after identifying it as a common problem in poorly performing authorities.
The watchdog said too many social workers were “pressing on in conditions that are unacceptable” as its annual social care report revealed concerns over caseload levels have been found at 14 councils inspected since January.
Unmanageable workloads robbed social workers of the time they needed to devote to children and were a common feature in ‘inadequate’-rated services, Ofsted said.
Good quality leadership was the “single most important” factor in improving services, with the best leadership teams having created environments for social workers “to flourish”, it added.
“When social workers work for good leaders and managers, they work in an environment where they feel fully supported. Because of the way that leaders and managers behave, staff feel confident. A culture of openness and transparency means that social workers feel more responsible as well as more able to reflect,” the report said.
“Social workers need time to spend with the children and families on their case list. They need a place of work that makes it possible for them to exercise their profession at the highest level. They need managers who trust and challenge them in equal measure.”
Common features of ‘inadequate’ services
- Children had too many changes of social worker
- Social workers’ ability to practice impacted by high caseloads
- Visits weren’t always undertaken within timescales
- When children were seen, they weren’t always seen alone
- Assessments not done or took too long to complete
- Plans to reduce harm to children were subject to drift and delay
- Insufficient management oversight and supervision of social workers
- Poor practice remained unchallenged
Ofsted has now inspected half of all local authorities in England under the tougher single inspection framework introduced in November 2013. Every local authority is expected to be inspected under the framework by the end of 2017.
The proportion of authorities receiving “inadequate” ratings rose five per cent last year, with child protection the service area that performed poorest.
However an analysis by the inspectorate found no significant link between ‘inadequate’ ratings and size, deprivation or funding. Providing outstanding services was possible “regardless of context”, the report claimed.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said the findings showed these factors “cannot be used an excuse” for poor performance.
He said: “If some authorities can succeed in difficult circumstances, so can others.
“As I have said many times before, the driving factor that makes change happen at pace is good leadership. Areas that are letting children down must look to their higher performing counterparts with urgency, and follow their example.”
Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “We are pleased that the correlation between good and consistent leadership in creating the conditions for success has been recognised as has the good work taking place in many local authorities to improve outcomes for children and their families.
“It is also helpful to know what outstanding looks like, although what works in one area may not work in another. The quality of leadership and social work and sustained investment in early help all have a critical role in achieving great services.
“That a quarter of the local authorities inspected so far are deemed to be inadequate is concerning, but this highlights the challenging times we are in – funds are reducing, particularly in terms of early help services, demand for help and support is increasing as is public scrutiny. It’s easy to take an inadequate judgement at face value but the services we lead and deliver are much more complex than that, as is the improvement process.”
Ofsted launched the report alongside a consultation document proposing changes to the way services inspected. The consultation asks for views on a new common inspection framework being proposed for all social care inspections and a tiered approach to the intensity of inspection based on a council’s past performance.
Ofsted said the changes aimed “to improve the quality, proportionality, and impact” of inspections. The consultation closes on 9 September.