Ofsted notes ‘positive morale’ on first return to ‘inadequate’ council

Monitoring visit records only marginal progress at Surrey children's services, but finds staff 'enthused' by improvement plans

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Ofsted inspectors have observed “positive morale” during a monitoring visit to a South East local authority judged ‘inadequate’ in May 2018, but found significant practice improvements were yet to materialise.

In their first return to Surrey since the inspection, which said social workers had been “overloaded” with cases, inspectors focused on the progress of children on child in need and child protection plans.

They noted staff at two area offices seemed “enthused” by proposed changes, including the introduction of a new ‘family resilience’ practice model. “Nearly all social workers seen were permanent employees who are committed to remain working in Surrey,” Ofsted said.

But despite the upbeat mood inspectors found evidence of stronger practice was “limited [and] very recent”, with senior leaders acknowledging the standard of interventions and outcomes for children “was unlikely to have significantly changed”.

‘Little guidance on direct work’

In its May inspection report, Ofsted criticised frontline management oversight at Surrey, finding that thresholds were poorly understood and that cases were often stepped up and down to soon. The monitoring visit found many of the same concerns persisted.

“A pattern of the same actions from one supervision session to the next was apparent in many cases seen,” inspectors said. “Little guidance is provided for social workers by their supervisors on how to approach and carry out direct work with children.”

The visit found almost half of children on child in need plans were not visited within timescales, contributing to drift and delay, while partnership working was rarely “dynamic [or] purposeful”.

“Some plans appear to run out of steam and are closed or stepped down,” inspectors said. “Alternatively, some children’s circumstances deteriorate, and they are escalated to child protection plans.”

Ofsted also noted examples of over-optimistic practice relating to parents’ and children’s behaviours, with too little understanding among practitioners of the impact of cumulative neglect. “When children’s attendance at school marginally improves, and the number of police incident reports concerning domestic abuse reduces, these small measures of early progress can result in children being prematurely removed from plans,” inspectors said.

A particular concern was over child protection conference chairs continuing to remove children from plans before sustained improvements had been evidenced, the reasons for which remained unclear.

‘Ambitious plans’

While concerns around the quality and consistency of practice continued, inspectors did observe some encouraging signs.

“Social workers are thinking more about how to plan and conduct direct work with children,” Ofsted said. “The input of family support workers in helping social workers with direct
work with both children and their adult carers is valuable. Highly sensitive, balanced and well-informed work provided by specialist workers was seen with older children experiencing exploitation.”

The monitoring visit report acknowledged that enacting widespread change would take time, but said some key building blocks were in place, notably the appointment of a new senior management team with “ambitious, credible plans” for improvement.

One encouraging sign was the implementation of a new auditing framework and team, which appeared to have an “assured grasp of good practice standards”.

Responding to the monitoring visit findings, a Surrey council spokesman said: “We know there is much to do to ensure our services for children are the very best they can be and we fully accept these findings.

He added: “Ofsted recognised we’ve put in place a new, highly experienced senior team to lead improvements and we’re focused on building on the work that’s already been started to ensure everything possible is done to support and care for children in Surrey.”

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