A 50% reduction in caseloads and investment in staff have helped improve children’s services in Swindon, finds Ofsted, awarding the department its first ‘good’ rating in five years.
After a period of deterioration following the council’s ‘requires improvement’ judgement in 2014 and critical focused visits in spring 2018 and earlier this year, inspectors visiting in July found problems had been addressed and praised senior leaders for their concerted efforts to turn the service around.
The latest inspection found that serious issues within the council’s multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) uncovered in 2018, which left some children at risk of harm, had been rectified.
The turnaround was achieved despite the council’s longstanding recruitment and retention problems, with agency staff accounting for 63% of social workers. Inspectors noted the majority were long-term locums, while senior managers were all permanent with significant investment in new posts, such as an exploitation manager and missing children’s coordinator.
“Supervision and management oversight are now timely and purposeful, and well documented in most case records,” the report stated. “Caseloads have halved, and social workers and managers feel well supported and have access to a comprehensive range of well-targeted training opportunities.”
Morale was found to be good, with senior leaders regularly joining staff in their daily work in order to break down divisions and quality-assure work in a hands-on way. The views of children and young people were also being better used to inform strategic planning, inspectors said.
The full report said all priorities in this area had now been tackled, with thresholds “well understood and appropriately applied” and teams working in harmony. “For children in need of statutory help, the response to referrals is now consistently thorough, and timely,” the report stated.
“Managers provide a detailed analysis if historical information, and actual and potential risks, and this is accompanied by coherent directives on next steps for social workers,” it added.
Inspectors also noted other strengths within child protection services, including “accessible and responsive” family group conferencing and improved arrangements around missing children.
‘Legacy of poor practice’
Nonetheless, Ofsted said there were still areas where a “legacy of poor practice” was having a negative effect on children’s experiences.
Plans for children receiving early help, in need or subject to child protection measures were found to be inconsistent and, in some cases, unclear, with a “difficult to navigate” case management system making things worse. Within services for children in care and care leavers – judged still to require improvement – progress had been made more slowly from a “low base”.
Pathway planning, which was criticised in an early-2019 focused visit, remained variable and did not appear to be “genuinely co-produced with young people”, inspectors said.
‘Rising to challenges’
Commenting on the inspection, Swindon council’s cabinet member for children Mary Martin, said it provided evidence of children’s services “rising to the challenges” set by previous Ofsted visits.
“Significant investment by the cabinet, coupled with outstanding leadership within the service, has turned the department around and Ofsted has recognised we are providing good services for children, which is ultimately what we are all here to do,” Martin said.
Swindon’s DCS David Haley added that it was, “heartening that Ofsted recognise we know ourselves well and have addressed all of the priorities from previous inspections”.
“The report recognises that staff morale is high with a strong learning culture and conditions that help social workers to do a good job,” he said. “This is testament to the determination, commitment and hard work of staff across the council.”