Ofsted inspectors have praised a local authority’s efforts to maintain standards in the face of budget cuts that saw social workers’ caseloads rise.
In a report published last week, Blackburn with Darwen children’s services held onto its overall ‘good’ rating despite inspectors finding some areas were “not as strong” as at their last visit in 2012.
The inspection report noted that councillors had removed £2.5 million (16%) from the department’s budget in 2016, negatively affecting workloads, recruitment and retention and supervision. Coming at a time when demand for services also went up, this had resulted in some “variable” practice.
But inspectors said the Lancashire council’s “committed and passionate” director of children’s services (DCS) had “advocated for [her department] against a backdrop of competing priorities”, with the money being reinstated in 2017 after a review.
“This has led to improvements in staffing and management oversight, which have resulted in reduced caseloads, some better supervision and an increased timeliness of work,” Ofsted said, adding that “morale is high” among social workers.
Despite Blackburn with Darwen’s recent challenges, which meant services for children in need of help and protection were graded ‘requires improvement’, Ofsted observed a number of areas where practice had been strengthened.
“Since the last inspection, there have been some good improvements, including enhanced support to the mainstream service through teams of family support workers and advanced practitioners, as well as the implementation of a locally designed framework for assessing risk,” the report said.
Inspectors highlighted the council’s “wide range” of early help services, which were well coordinated via children’s centres to ensure people could access assistance when needed.
Ofsted found that assessments were completed in a timely fashion and quality, though still slightly uneven, was steadily improving.
The regulator also praised strong multi-agency work, supported by the local safeguarding children board, in response to risk around sexual exploitation, radicalisation and female genital mutilation (FGM).
“In [FGM] cases seen by inspectors, detailed assessments evidence the use of research, the voice of the child and analysis of the risk to inform action, including taking legal action when appropriate,” the report said.
‘Children speak highly of support’
Blackburn with Darwen council’s services for looked-after children maintained its ‘good’ rating. Inspectors found staff to be “ambitious and aspirational” with regards to the children they work with. “Children speak highly of the support and care they receive,” they added.
Placement matching was singled out as a strength, with Ofsted pointing to children and parents being “fully involved” and commenting on the attention given to identity and cultural needs.
Cafcass staff and members of the judiciary spoken to as part of the inspection process were “complimentary about the quality of evidence and information sharing by social workers”, the report said.
Ofsted made nine recommendations for further service improvements in Blackburn with Darwen. These included ensuring the timeliness of assessments and actions forming part of children’s plans, strengthening work in relation to chronic neglect and refining supervision and performance monitoring.
But the inspection report said managers at the council were “well aware of the strengths and deficiencies of their services” prior to the inspection. “Feedback from regular internal audit activity and an independent peer review by the Local Government Association have informed a streamlined business plan that focuses on improving social work practice and addressing weaker areas of performance,” Ofsted said.
Maureen Bateson, Blackburn with Darwen’s executive member for children’s services, said Ofsted’s judgment was “something special given the unprecedented cuts to the council’s budget and the increasing demand for our support.”
Linda Clegg, the local authority’s DCS, added that it was “important to take pride in” the report.
“The inspectors were clear that we have done amazingly well to keep standards high,” she said. “We welcome the feedback and recommendations made, which will be included in our ongoing improvement plans.”