The Ofsted Interview: ‘I didn’t want to put staff through a restructure without an evidence base’

How one local authority's journey with a new structure is looking to tackle high caseloads and the challenges of recruiting qualified social workers

Children’s services at Cambridgeshire council was judged ‘requires improvement’ overall by Ofsted in its latest inspection, conducted at the start of this year.

While the impact of senior leadership was judged ‘good’, the council was found to have faced difficulties since the watchdog previously inspected its children’s services in 2014, with a restructure implemented in April 2017 found to have a negative impact on how children and families receive help and support. In addition, the council faced challenges in recruiting social workers and rising demand for services.

Ofsted in its latest inspection found that senior leaders had taken “a series of well-considered actions, backed by financial investment, which have begun to improve the quality and impact of work with children, young people and their families”, with further changes made to the service’s structure in November 2018. Inspectors were positive about the changes, with some, including new adolescent teams said to have the potential to be a “real asset”.

However, Ofsted highlighted high caseloads to be the most significant threat to improvements. “These are too high for most social workers and unsustainable in some teams. The impact of this is that, too often, social workers and frontline managers have had to focus on the most urgent and important work to secure children’s immediate safety, without sufficient capacity for the follow-up work needed to sustain change within families or to ensure that children in care have permanent homes as soon as possible,” inspectors said.

In the latest episode of Community Care’s The Ofsted Interview podcast series, Cambridgeshire council’s service director for children’s services and safeguarding Lou Williams discusses how the local authority approached the sensitive move of a restructure so soon after staff had undergone change. Williams talks to use about the benefits of the use of clinicians and child practitioners within social work teams, and his optimism that the changes will impact positively on the management of caseloads amidst demand for the council’s services.

Listen to Williams discuss the new structure, how senior leadership has increased visibility on the service’s development areas, and his priorities for further improvement below or subscribe to the series on iTunes, and read our quick table for the key findings from Ofsted’s inspection.

Highlights from the Ofsted inspection: Cambridgeshire council

Area of service Ofsted inspection findings 2019
The experience and progress of children who need help and protection Requires improvement:Social workers and their managers are doing their best to ensure that the most urgent and important work is tackled in a timely and effective manner. They are largely achieving this. However, this comes at a cost, particularly for work that may be less urgent but of equal importance. Inspectors found that, for some children, visits were overdue or cancelled at the last minute and assessments were not completed in timescales that matched children’s needs.
The experience and progress of children who need help and protection Requires improvement:A recently established early help hub (EEH) is proving to be a well-managed, effective service. Co-location with the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and the missing, exploited and trafficked hub team allows for the ready exchange of information and professional expertise. Staff in the EHH take good account not only of current concerns and information from background checks but also of children’s histories. This means that threshold judgements and recommendations about next steps are generally well matched to need, including decisions to step up to MASH or to children’s assessment teams for a statutory social work service.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers Requires improvement:Leaders have recognised that the former structure, made up of generic ‘life-long’ social work units and 14–25 teams, did not ensure a sufficiently sharp focus on children in care and care leavers, and on the need to progress court work and ensure that they have permanent homes as soon as possible. A stronger 6 strategic focus on children in care and care leavers, an increase in staffing and, in the last few months, the establishment of dedicated teams for these children have started to address weaknesses in practice.
The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers Requires improvement:Work to prepare children in care and care leavers for independence is not strong. Most pathway plans do not help with this. Many are lengthy but lack a sufficient depth of consideration of young people’s needs or aspiration for their futures. This is because most plans are not completed in partnership with young people and, consequently, do not provide a strong sense of young people’s lived 8 experiences or a clear route map for providing support and progressing their welfare.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families Good:Over the course of 2018, the local authority increased staffing and implemented a more coherent team structure. The remodelling of the MASH is ensuring faster and more consistent progression of referrals about children, while the replacement of ‘life-long’ social work units and 14–25 teams with specialist teams has improved the focus on the distinct needs of children in different circumstances, for example the differing needs of a preschool child living at home compared to those of an older young person preparing to leave care.
The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families Good:Leaders and managers know well the key strengths and weaknesses of services in Cambridgeshire. They have used peer and other external reviews and worked closely with the local safeguarding children board to engage partner agencies and to drive and monitor progress. This has supported, for example, the involvement of the police, health agencies and schools in implementing the new MASH arrangements. However, performance management information lacks sufficient clarity and depth of analysis to provide a detailed and up-to-date picture of practice to support improvement work.
Overall effectiveness Requires improvement:The most significant challenge to the local authority’s ability to provide consistently good services to children, young people and their families has been, and continues to be, the size of caseloads. These are too high for most social workers and unsustainable in some teams. The impact of this is that, too often, social workers and frontline managers have had to focus on the most urgent and important work to secure children’s immediate safety, without sufficient capacity for the follow-up work needed to sustain change within families or to ensure that children in care have permanent homes as soon as possible.
Overall effectiveness Requires improvement:Since the last inspection, changes of senior leadership, restructuring of services, rising demand and challenges in recruiting enough social workers have had a negative impact on how well and how quickly children and their families receive help and support. Leaders have recognised this and have taken a series of well-considered actions, backed by financial investment, which have begun to improve the quality and impact of work with children, young people and their families.
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