A local authority where a misunderstanding of thresholds is “overloading social workers” has been rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
An inspection of children’s services in Surrey found “serious shortcomings in frontline management oversight” and the council had been forced to hire an external assessor to review 300 cases with potential unrecognised safeguarding concerns.
“In too many cases, social workers, directed by their managers, cease their involvement with children too soon, or step down their cases too quickly to early help services, and before there is evidence of sustainable improvements.
“These children are frequently referred back again for further help as their circumstances have failed to improve.”
It said external agencies had a poor understanding of thresholds, which had led to “too many unnecessary low-level contacts and referrals, and overloading social workers in the multi-agency safeguarding hub”.
Management oversight lacked curiosity, inspectors said, and it leaves some children exposed to risks of significant harm.
It added that some teams had high caseloads, and staff turnover was a “significant difficulty”, compounded by the challenges to recruitment faced by some local authorities in South-East England which are close to London.
The council did not ensure social workers had “the right basic tools for their work”, inspectors found.
This included “the lack of early provision of training to use the electronic recording system, and unwieldy and time-consuming efforts expended accessing information across three separate databases”.
Inspectors noted there had been some recent improvements, as senior leaders had appreciated the scale of the challenge facing services in Surrey, and it had recently introduced a recognised model of practice.
Its adoption performance was rated ‘good’, and inspectors found “highly skilled, knowledgeable and experienced” social workers and managers in the fostering service.
“Social workers undertake creative and child-focused direct work, including imaginative life-story work with carers and children. These measures promote placement stability, help building enduring attachments and assist children in understanding their passage into care, strengthening their self-esteem.”
Ofsted concluded however that senior leaders had been to slow to accept and act on the 2014 inspection, which also found services ‘inadequate’.
“Too many of the most vulnerable children in the county are being left exposed to continuing harm for long periods of time before decisive protective actions are taken,” the report said.
Inspectors recommended the council put children’s voices at the centre of its improvement work and further embed a new system of quality assurance to improve frontline practice.
Surrey should also improve the quality of management oversight, and make sure managers only step-down or close cases when there is substantial evidence that circumstances have improved, and those improvements will last.
Dave Hill, who was appointed executive director for children, families and learning in Surrey at the end of April said: “I’m clear we need to do more to improve the lives of children in Surrey. That’s what I’ve been brought in to do, using the experience I have turning round children’s services in other parts of the country. I’m sure we will also do so in Surrey.”