Delayed restructure will address ‘excessively high’ social worker caseloads, council says

Focused visit to Staffordshire council finds social workers struggling after staff turnover increases

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Photo: Business Images/Rex

Managers at a cash-strapped West Midlands local authority have told Ofsted that a delayed children’s services restructure should alleviate problems identified in a recent focused visit.

The regulator found social workers at Staffordshire council, rated ‘good’ at its last full inspection in 2014, were being hampered by ‘excessively high’ caseloads in some teams.

The council, like many others, is experiencing serious financial problems and faces a £35 million budget shortfall by 2020.

‘Social workers struggling’

Rising workloads at Staffordshire were down to an increased turnover in staff, inspectors found.

“Many social workers are struggling to see children enough in order to make direct work meaningful and to achieve change,” Ofsted said, with a small number of children receiving an inadequate level of service.

The focused visit report, which targeted arrangements for the protection of vulnerable adolescents, also said managers were sometimes failing to ensure cases progressed.

“While no children were seen at risk of significant harm, drift did result in continuing vulnerability for a small but significant number of children and young people whose cases are open to children’s services,” inspectors said. Audit activity was not “robustly’ capturing the quality of social work practice, they added.

But, the report said, senior managers at Staffordshire believed that planned changes “will have a positive impact on workforce capacity, caseloads and the quality of practice, resulting in improved outcomes for children and young people”.

‘Increased capacity’

In a statement to Community Care, a Staffordshire council spokesperson said “corporate issues” rather than the external pressures facing the authority, had delayed its service restructure, which had been proposed before Ofsted’s visit.

“The restructure will better align existing early help capacity to supporting those children and families at the cusp of statutory services, and by integrating management and delivery on a district footprint bring increased capacity to support children in need,” the spokesperson said.

Despite its financial woes, the council also announced earlier in July that it is to invest an extra £1.1 million in recruiting children’s social workers in order to help bring caseloads down.

Staffordshire’s spokesperson said the council was finding it hard to source both permanent and agency social workers, adding that there was a “clear regional shortage” of locums.

In the wake of tax legislation changes made in 2017, it has become less financially viable for agency social workers to travel long distances in order to work for councils facing staffing shortages. The introduction of regional pay caps, which are well established in the West Midlands, has also reduced councils’ ability to entice agency workers into hard-to-fill roles.

‘Continued improvements’ at Sutton

In another recent focused visit – to the London borough of Sutton, also rated ‘good’ – Ofsted found a completed restructure had made a positive impact.

Inspectors, who again focused on arrangements for vulnerable adolescents, said the integration of early help and children’s social care services was “proving effective” at reducing risks to young people.

“Restorative practice is being rolled out across the borough and this is resulting in creative approaches to identify vulnerable adolescents and provide effective help for them,” Ofsted’s report said. “Collaboration between services is particularly successful with those children and young people who are harder to engage.”

Among a short list of recommendations, inspectors said the council needed to improve consistency in return-home interviews for children who go missing, and improve risk-assessment practice, which they said was too “fragmented”.

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