Children looked after by Wirral council have “unanimously expressed unhappiness” about the number of changes of social workers and independent reviewing officers (IROs) they have experienced.
A report on an Ofsted monitoring visit said looked-after children were becoming ”increasingly unwilling to form trusting relationships” with members of staff ”when they cannot be sure how long they will be their social worker for”.
Negative impacts of staff turnover highlighted by young people included not being given advance notice of a new worker or who it would be, and that new social workers did not always understand their past or what life was like for them.
Education and health professionals also reported that social worker turnover was leading to problems in sharing information, such as in advising other agencies of placement changes or breakdowns.
Inspectors highlighted concerns with “deficits” in assessment and care planning, saying these had “exacerbated the already traumatic experiences” of children who had been in care for a long time.
The monitoring visit in December 2017 was the fourth since Wirral’s children’s services were judged to be ‘inadequate’ in September 2016. At the time, Ofsted also said children were experiencing ”too many changes of worker”.
The number of looked-after children in Wirral increased by almost a fifth to 837 between the ‘inadequate’ inspection and December 2017.
A Wirral Council spokesperson said the authority was creating 80 new children’s services jobs, including 46 full-time equivalent social worker posts, as part of a £20 million investment.
“This will reduce caseloads so that social workers can spend more time with children and improve the quality of their practice,” the spokesperson added.
“However, this investment and scale of recruitment has inevitably led to changes in social workers for some children. Any unnecessary change in social worker or IRO is unacceptable and every effort is made to avoid this.
“In a small number of cases this change has had to happen quickly and some children have understandably been unhappy about the disruption this has caused. In the medium and longer terms we are confident that increasing capacity will pay off and be better for all our children.”
Wirral said its turnover rate of social workers in children’s services fell to 6.7% in 2017 from 7.9% in 2016. In addition, 37% of social worker posts are currently vacant and 35% are filled by temporary workers, though the major recruitment campaign is ongoing.
‘Signs of making progress’
Overall, Ofsted inspectors said that, “following a slow start”, Wirral was “beginning to show signs of making some progress” in improving services for looked-after children, “though there is still a great deal of work to be done”.
Ofsted said an increase in the number of social work staff and managers was “a welcome response to managing the increasing demands on the service, even though this has necessitated an increase in temporary staff”.
Although Wirral was making “considerable effort” to stabilise the workforce, “with some early signs of success”, in most cases tracked by inspectors, children had had two or three social workers and IROs in 2017, as well as a number of changes in social worker in previous years.
Inspectors also said that the absence of up-to-date assessments for looked-after children was a “key shortfall”, and that this “blunts the focus, and undermines the effectiveness, of plans and interventions”.
These plans, in addition, do not always take account of all of their [children’s] needs and do not progress swiftly enough”, and it “is not always clear what outcomes are expected for children looked after from their care experience”.
Inspectors also said permanency was “not well understood” by most of the staff they spoke to, while drift in care planning had led to some children ending up in long-term placements “by default rather than by good planning”.
Although case recording was “generally up to date”, Wirral’s electronic case recording system was “not being used to its maximum”, and case files showed “variable managerial case oversight and staff supervision”.
Social workers also “vary in the extent to which they undertake and record direct, purposeful work with children”.
However, inspectors said increasing numbers of escalations by IROs “show more strength from this service in addressing drift, and this is positive”.
They also saw better compliance with some essential minimum requirements, including completing plans, convening essential meetings and recording casework.
Social workers “understand the need for children to have plans”, including personal education plans (PEPs), though only half of looked-after children had an up-to-date PEP in November 2017 and the quality of PEPs “remains variable”.