In 2015, Somerset children’s services felt a feeling increasingly familiar to local authorities across the country, of needing to deal with the fallout of an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating.
Inspectors in the 2015 report were widely critical of the service provided, saying “a high number of locum staff used to cover managerial and social work posts, and the continual changes in the workforce, have limited the authority’s ability to achieve a consistently acceptable standard and quality of social work practice”.
But last month, Ofsted published its findings of its latest inspection of the council, and a long process of turning around the struggling service had begun to bear fruit. The council was rated ‘requires improvement’ with Ofsted praising its investment in recruiting and supporting social workers. The result of this investment was a 20% increase in the number of practitioners, and smaller teams for them to work in.
The council has hired 160 permanent social workers between the two inspections. Inspectors noted how “the turnover of staff and managers has been reduced and there has been significant investment in creating an environment that enables good practice to flourish”.
As a result of the council’s recruitment initiatives, only 12 posts were unfilled. Frontline turnover dropped 21% from a peak in 2015-16, according to a report to the council’s cabinet in November, and of 71 Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) social workers recruited, 69 were still in the authority.
Julian Wooster, Somerset’s director of children’s services, said much of the council’s success in this area has been due to a supportive social work academy bringing social workers through these ASYEs.
He says the benefits of the council’s massive recruitment drive has been that new staff bring new ideas. The drive has also helped the council achieve one of its major aims after being rated ‘inadequate’: reducing caseloads.
“We realised we couldn’t do good social work with high caseloads. The reality is we’ve got to get our caseloads down and that’s what we have been working on,” Wooster explains.
An average caseload of 25 when Ofsted visited in 2015 has reduced to 17, and Wooster insists the ambition is to reduce this further to 14.
Key to convincing social workers to join Somerset has been a new induction process which doesn’t discriminate between permanent and agency staff, and works hard at welcoming staff and ensuring they understand the authority’s processes from the start.
“The other bit we’ve been working on is succession planning. There’s a number of staff who have moved on from being a social worker to a consultant social worker, those who want to go to management so have become team managers, middle managers. We’ve got really good opportunities for staff here now,” Wooster says.
Another important element of convincing staff to work at the council was demonstrating that they would be supported.
“I remember when I was a newly-qualified social worker, what you looked at was ‘who is going to be your team manager, what support are you going to get, are you going to get a good experience?’” Wooster says.
“The degree [of difference] of money between authorities is not that great, what’s important is if you have a good experience, you’re supported and encouraged to develop.”
This was noted in the Ofsted report, which praised the impact of a mindfulness course on supporting social workers, and highlighted “a good range of learning, support and development opportunities available to staff”.
“An annual staff survey and a range of emotional well-being initiatives are all demonstrating an investment in staff,” inspectors said.
Recruitment drive to continue
A more stable workforce has led to improved outcomes for families, Wooster says. Overall the local authority is better rated by Ofsted compared to 2015, but there’s pockets of ‘good’ practice, with the council’s adoption service singled out for praise.
There is still space for improvement, with some turnover in the workforce throughout the period since the previous inspection, which has had a negative impact on the experiences of children, and Ofsted noted the council was still “too reliant” on agency staff. Since 2015 this picture has improved however. Whereas the council used to employ 180 permanent staff and around 70 agency, the balance is now 240 permanent and around 60 agency staff.
Wooster says the council will continue with its recruitment strategy to aid the improvements Somerset needs to get to a ‘good’ rating. The council is entering the third year of its ring-fenced £6 million investment in new social work staff and continues to bring through social workers from the Step Up to Social Work scheme.
“The key bit for us is investing in the workforce, because we can immediately see the significant changes that’s had in terms of social work practice.”