Poorly executed top-level changes at a county council have led to ‘chronic’ workforce instability and a ‘deep-rooted’ failure to meet basic social work standards, a scathing inspection report has concluded.
Following visits during February and March 2019, Ofsted said children in West Sussex faced a lottery in terms of the support they receive, with a small minority suffering long-term harm as a result of poor practice.
“Changes in leadership at corporate and managerial levels, combined with service restructure in 2015, have resulted in significant staff turnover and a workforce having to cover a broad range of work, without the skills and expertise that are needed,” the inspection report, published this week, said.
“Too many children have experienced too many changes of social worker [because of staff turnover], resulting in disruption and delayed intervention for many of them,” it added.
Ineffective oversight and quality assurance were making matters worse, inspectors found. The exclusion from high-level meetings of the director of children’s services (DCS), who also no longer reported to the chief executive, meant children’s services had slipped down the corporate agenda, they said.
Drift and delay were apparent across all social work teams, with casework uncompleted and poorly audited, visits carried out too rarely and risks unrecognised, inspectors added as they judged the local authority ‘inadequate’ in all areas.
Senior leaders at West Sussex, graded ‘requires improvement’ after its last inspection in 2015, had become aware of deteriorating standards but had failed to address them, the report added. Efforts to stabilise the workforce by improving the offer to staff had been too late, it said.
‘Profound consequences’ for children
Children in need of safeguarding were being failed before birth in West Sussex, Ofsted said, with some unborn babies being needlessly referred for assessment while others faced unnecessary emergency action because of planning failures.
Despite a neglect strategy being put in place by the local safeguarding children board 2016, the council’s response to neglect was identified as another serious weakness, with ‘accumulating’ concerns often not comprehended.
This resulted in a “lack of assertive action and to some children experiencing profound and potentially long-term consequences,” the inspection report said.
In response to recommendations made at Ofsted’s last visit, West Sussex’s multi-agency safeguarding hub had improved, inspectors found. Nonetheless, too many contacts were being closed without action because of uncertainty over thresholds, they added.
Children who became involved with social workers were not consistently well supported, Ofsted said. “Insufficient social work capacity means some children are not visited regularly enough, or they are visited by different duty workers,” the report said.
Child protection plans tended to be over-complex and vague, leading to increasing risks for children, and in some cases harm, it added. Inspectors noted that the local judiciary were “highly critical” of the impact staff turnover at West Sussex was having on social work practice.
‘Concern and frustration’ at turnover
Where children were taken into care, this often happened too late, by which time their needs had become more complex, Ofsted said.
A quarter of children in care did not have an up-to-date care plan, while just 13% of those who became looked after during December 2018 had their initial health assessment carried out on time, inspectors discovered.
“Managers at all levels are not rigorously overseeing social work practice to ensure outstanding actions are swiftly completed,” the report said. It added that the actions of independent reviewing officers were also “largely ineffective” at reducing drift and delay, while West Sussex’s corporate parenting panel was under-developed and lacked aspiration in terms of improving outcomes for children.
As with child protection services, West Sussex’s inability to keep hold of its social workers was again highlighted as exacerbating the poor state of its offer to children in care.
“Too many foster carers express concern and frustration about the impact on children of the high turnover and poor practice of some children’s social workers,” inspectors said.
Some children in care said they had lost confidence in the system due to frequent changes in social worker, with one expressing frustration at “having to say the same thing over and over again”.
In its report, Ofsted made 12 recommendations regarding what West Sussex council must do to improve, including around the infrastructure to support good social work practice, the quality of planning and recording information, quality assurance, and supervision and oversight at all levels.
But inspectors warned the local authority was, at the time of their visit, poorly set up to execute all the changes, given the effective downgrading of children’s services within its governance arrangements.
Nathan Elvery, West Sussex’s chief executive said the council had set up an improvement board, independently chaired by an experienced senior officer, Andrew Ireland. A Department for Education commissioner will also work with the local authority, a West Sussex spokesperson said.
Elvery added that West Sussex had appointed a new DCS, John Readman, who was previously in charge of children’s services in Lancashire and Bristol, to get things back on track.
“We have reviewed all reporting arrangements for our DCS to ensure we have the most effective reporting line to the chief executive and are confident that this supports our improvement plan and our ability to improve the outcomes for the children of West Sussex,” Elvery said.
Louise Goldsmith, West Sussex’s leader said: “We take these findings extremely seriously. At present we are letting down children and families who need our help most. It is unacceptable – we are very sorry and bitterly disappointed.”