Staff at ‘outstanding’ council say duties match ‘the reason they came into social work’

Children's services in county council get tops marks from Ofsted inspectors, who praise county's 'inspirational leaders'

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A county council has scooped an ‘outstanding’ rating in its latest inspection from Ofsted, with social workers telling inspectors that their work with families and children matched their motivations for first entering the profession.

Essex council, which scored a ‘good’ rating when the regulator last called in 2014, was judged ‘outstanding’ overall in a report published this week, with child protection services and the quality of leadership also receiving the highest grade.

“Low levels of agency staffing and a timely response to recruitment mean caseloads are low, giving social workers time and space to build meaningful relationships,” inspectors observed, adding that staff appreciated a “comprehensive” training offer.

“Workers describe the work they are able to undertake with children and families as the reason they came into social work,” Ofsted said.

‘Encouraging’ culture

Inspectors said leaders at Essex – home to 2016’s Social Worker of the Year Bianka Lang – had made “purposeful” use of feedback, both from internal processes and external reviews, to drive steady improvement since the last inspection.

“The inspirational director of children’s services and her strong senior leadership team have developed a clear vision to improve children lives,” Ofsted said. “They have created a culture in which staff are valued, supported and encouraged to be creative in their practice in order to make a positive difference to children.”

Within child protection services inspectors described social workers, who benefited from “clear and considered” oversight, as “knowing children very well” and developing effective plans to improve their lives.

“Inspectors saw the sensitive exploration of issues during direct work reducing incidents of going missing and allowing children space to reflect on their individual circumstances and inform planning,” the report said. “Visits to children are matched to their individual needs, often taking place at an impressive frequency above guidance requirements.”

Across children’s services, inspectors said, there was a “shared understanding that children should be supported to grow up in their own families when it is safe for them to do so”.

They praised the council’s “exceptional” early help services as underpinning this aspiration, delivering “effective plans and intervention focused on children’s needs”.

‘Court proceedings averted’

Where children were in situations where care proceedings were being considered, Essex council made good use of the public law outline (PLO), Ofsted said.

“Effective engagement through PLO intervention is promoting change within families, resulting in the need for proceedings being averted in nearly half of the cases concerned,” inspectors added.

Children no longer able to live with their families benefited from “decisive” social work action to find good-quality placements, the inspection report went on.

“Social workers have a thorough understanding of the children they work with and are passionate about improving outcomes for them,” it said, with children in care exerting a “meaningful” influence on service design.

Dick Madden, Essex’s cabinet member for children and families said the report was “the best way to start the new year”.

“We have invested in our staff, improved practice and developed innovative methods but all the time we have ensured at the heart of everything is the drive to improve the lives of our vulnerable children and their families,” he said. “I could not be more proud of this achievement.”

No change at Plymouth and Nottingham

In two other inspection reports out this week, Nottingham and Plymouth councils both maintained ‘requires improvement’ grades.

At the south coast authority, Ofsted said there had been “significant progress in establishing an environment in which good social work can flourish by significantly reducing social workers’ workloads, increasing management capacity and providing a range of learning and development opportunities”.

But inspectors said areas of weaker practice remained, with the pace of change to improve some services “too slow”.

Similarly, in Nottingham, they found that a range of services had got better, with leaders “conveying a clear vision for services that staff understand and believe in”.

But, Ofsted added, “Areas for improvement are not always understood by leaders or addressed with sufficient urgency. Planning for children and the pace of change to improve children’s lives are not strong enough to achieve good outcomes for all children.”

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