DfE steps in at Northamptonshire as social workers say they are ‘drowning’

Children's commissioner planned at financially failing council after Ofsted visit finds 'significant decline' in children's services

Department for Education
Department for Education

Ministers have written to a struggling council announcing their intent to appoint a children’s commissioner to stabilise and improve services, following an Ofsted visit that found “unmanageable” workloads were causing social work gridlock and leaving children at potential risk.

Education secretary Damian Hinds and James Brokenshire, the housing, communities and local government secretary, issued letters yesterday responding to a call for help from another government-mandated commissioner at cash-strapped Northamptonshire council.

Tony McArdle, who was appointed in May after the council warned it faced de facto bankruptcy, had asked the ministers for his team to be expanded to tackle “fundamental problems” in children’s services, which he said leaders were failing to address.

He warned of low morale among staff, and of planned improvements that “fail to get off the ground, stall, or result in little or no change in outcomes”.

‘Significant decline’

The scale of those problems was revealed in the report, also published yesterday, of an Ofsted focused visit carried out in October.

Inspectors found services had “significantly declined” since Northamptonshire’s last full inspection in 2016, at which the council was deemed to ‘require improvement’.

They noted major social worker shortfalls across children’s services, including within the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and first response teams that the visit targeted.

“Senior leaders are aware of these serious weaknesses and have taken remedial action to respond [but] this has not been effective or with sufficient urgency or rigour,” inspectors wrote. “Consequently, at the time of this visit there was insufficient capacity in the MASH and the first response teams to meet the needs of children and families.”

Addressing workforce capacity and over-reliance on agency staff – which have been ongoing issues at Northamptonshire, exacerbated by its worsening financial situation – was highlighted as one of two immediate priorities.

Cases not allocated

The other priority was around case progression. During the focused visit, inspectors found that 267 children in need of a statutory assessment and social work intervention did not have an allocated social worker.

“The number of unallocated cases has reduced from 551 in January but has remained stubbornly between 200 and 300,” inspectors said, adding that in cases they sampled there was no evidence of risk being evaluated.

Ofsted said that within the MASH, thresholds were being poorly applied, with some cases closed too soon and others inappropriately stepped up, adding to pressures on staff.

Within first responses teams, “many” social workers were handling between 30 and 50 cases, inspectors found – with practitioners reporting that they were “overwhelmed and drowning”.

“As a result, visits to children are not sufficient, and rushed home visits lead to superficial, weak assessments, which results in delays in providing support,” Ofsted said.

‘Ineffective’ management

After Ofsted’s last focused visit to Northamptonshire, in spring 2018, the director of children’s services, Lesley Hagger, left her post, with changes ongoing to the leadership team.

Hagger’s replacement Walter McCulloch is currently on long-term sick leave, with Sharon Muldoon, the assistant director for quality and performance, acting as director of children’s services. Meanwhile a new social care board has recently been installed to drive improvements.

While inspectors found senior leaders were now making steps towards addressing service weaknesses – including in management oversight – they found “basic practice standards” were still not being met.

“Senior managers have not been effective in tackling [problems around auditing],” they said. “This work is critical to ensure social workers and managers are clear about what good practice and good services look like in order to raise quality standards.”

Weak oversight and quality assurance meant poor practice went unchallenged, leaving children’s needs unmet, Ofsted found. “Frequent changes in social workers and managers mean that plans to strengthen the quality of practice lose momentum,” inspectors added.

New processes established to review the backlog of unallocated work were yet to make headway, Ofsted said.

Services to stay in council control

The letter sent by the government to Northamptonshire said that education secretary Hinds had “carefully considered Ofsted’s findings, the history of performance and intervention into Northamptonshire’s children’s services, and the letter from [McArdle]”.

It added that Hinds was “minded” to appoint a children’s commissioner with immediate effect to stabilise and improve services, which would remain under council control until any decision about future local government arrangements in the county is taken.

The government will issue a draft statutory appointing a commissioner, to which the council will have a week to respond, after which the government will make a final decision.

Malcolm Newsam, who previously oversaw improvements at Rotherham council in the wake of the 2014 inquiry into child sexual abuse in the South Yorkshire town, is expected to take on the commissioner’s role.

Victoria Perry, Northamptonshire’s cabinet member for children, families and education, said the council now needed to focus on improving safeguarding services, as well as early help and prevention.

“We know that our children’s services are not working well and we will put this right,” she said. “It is clear from the findings from Ofsted that these failures in the system have taken place over the last two years, and we are now completely focused on recovering from these failures.”

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