An ‘inadequate’ council’s children’s services is starting to make improvements despite caseloads for social workers being “too high”.
Ofsted inspectors said children’s services in Buckinghamshire had begun to make improvements from a low base, but high caseloads “limits the time that social workers have available to spend working directly with children and their families”.
The service was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted for the second time in four years in January, but heard in July it would be allowed to retain its children’s services as an independent commissioner felt the cost and delays associated with setting up an alternate delivery model would slow improvements.
The latest monitoring inspection, published this week, found caseload pressures were “too great” and the volume of work was “too high for a significant number of social workers”.
“Some social workers say that this workload is difficult to manage, and that they often need to work additional hours during evenings and weekends.
“There are sudden upward spikes in workloads when social workers leave, due to the redistribution of their caseloads, adding to the pressure on remaining social workers. Overall, social workers’ caseloads are too high to enable senior managers to create the conditions for improved quality of practice that they are actively seeking to achieve.”
‘Credible’ improvement plans
Inspectors noted that services for children subject to a child in need plan had begun to improve, and senior leaders had a clear, well-informed understanding of the “significant weaknesses” in the service.
“Plans to improve practice are credible and well devised. Senior managers are strongly committed to moving forward at a realistic pace and are determined to achieve rapid and sustainable improvements in children’s circumstances and outcomes,” Ofsted found.
Social workers told inspectors of the development of a learning culture and how they felt “heard” through changes being made.
Despite the changes, inspectors criticised “widespread shortfalls in the quality and effectiveness of intervention and support to children in need”, which was compounded by “inconsistent management oversight”.
The inspection identified “some stronger and thoughtful practice” and there were encouraging signs of development in social work practice, despite much of it being “too weak”.
“The local authority is committed to evaluating and increasing the capacity of frontline managers and social workers in order to understand what is effective and safe social work with children in need. Senior managers are in the early stages of ensuring that improved standards of assessment, planning, intervention and review are consistently applied.”
Ofsted said senior managers had just introduced a new audit model, and social workers felt able to express their views. Staff expressed “cautious optimism” to inspectors that practice was improving and the council culture was becoming “increasingly transparent”.