The high turnover of middle and junior managers in an ‘inadequate’-rated council had a “considerable” impact on the practice of frontline social workers.
Social workers in Kirklees experienced “considerable churn” of managers in 2015 and 2016, a report by a government-appointed commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, said.
“Some of these changes have been a result of management action to address areas of incompetence and some as a result of the not unusual coming and going of agency staff. The impact on front line staff has been considerable,” it said.
The report also said senior management oversight could have been affected because the council’s director of children’s services, Alison O’Sullivan, and its assistant director had also held external roles which would require a “considerable time spent away” from the authority. O’Sullivan was vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) in 2014-15 and president the following year.
The report, which was originally submitted in March but had its publication delayed to September because of the general election, recommended the crisis-hit council enter a joint working arrangement with Leeds. This partnership began in July with Leeds director Steve Walker overseeing improvements.
The report also highlighted problems with recruitment and a reliance on agency staff. At the start of this year, the council had 45 full-time equivalent vacancies in its assessment and intervention teams and 25 in its corporate parenting teams, the report found.
Agency staff had been recruited with “insufficient attention being paid to the financial implications,” the report said.
“The previous assistant director contracted with two external organisations to provide 2-3 teams of social workers to take responsibility for cases that could not be allocated in the service. This is an expensive arrangement which may not be providing good value and the interim Director is now urgently reviewing these contracts,” it added.
Kirklees has generated headlines because of a dispute with the local Unison branch, which culminated in a two-day walkout by social workers over working conditions in July.
However, the report said the dispute was “not helpful”.
“The council are demonstrating a clear commitment to improvement and understand the importance of recruitment and retention of social workers. Given this, it should be possible to achieve a more constructive way forward with the union, who should recognise the positive intent of the council,” it said.
“Their concerns remain vague and should be addressed through constructive discussion and working together,” it added.
Brazil’s report highlighted how children’s services in Kirklees appeared fine until midway through 2015, when indications about a decline in quality began to be seen internally.
The report suggested there could have been a reduced level of senior oversight and direction because O’Sullivan and her assistant director were carrying out external roles.
The report said: “These important national roles, particularly that of [ADCS] president, inevitably require considerable time spent away from the authority. During the first of those years, the assistant director also spent time away as a seconded inspector on Ofsted inspections.
“Children’s social care is challenging and demanding, requiring continuous leadership focus and attention. It is very possible that the engagement at the same time of the two key senior managers in matters outside the authority reduced the level of senior oversight and direction”.
At some points caseloads for social workers had been “dangerously high”, but by March this year they were “reasonable in general”.
David Sheard, leader of Kirklees council, stressed a “great deal has changed” in the six months since Brazil’s report.
“The partnership with Leeds is something we began to establish in early 2017. This relationship is flourishing, is strongly supported by both authorities and is already having a major impact.
“These new arrangements have strengthened and stabilised the leadership of children’s services, which is vitally important at a challenging time. We are seeing clear evidence of progress, though we absolutely recognise there is still a long way to go,” Sheard said.
He praised the workforce, which was highlighted in the report as “committed to their work and their community”.
“This is a very positive building block. We expect Ofsted to visit Kirklees in the near future for another monitoring visit, which will be a chance to demonstrate the progress we are undoubtedly making,” Sheard said.
On the comments about the impact of O’Sullivan’s time at the ADCS, Sarah Caton, ADCS chief officer, said: “We understand that the role of ADCS president is demanding and during their year in office the president is supported by a central staff team and leadership is widely dispersed across a number of policy leads as well as the vice and immediate past presidents.
“Directors wishing to stand for this important role require the full support and endorsement of their executive and political leadership and the Association makes a payment to the authority of the serving president which can be used to support any necessary cover arrangements within their local authority.”