Case recording system problems continue to dog borough, as it retains ‘requires improvement’ tag

Frequent system failures mean records may be out of date and inaccurate, and case recording time-consuming, finds Ofsted

Image of a computer keyboard (Marcie Casas / Flickr)
(Image: Marcie Casas / Flickr)

Problems with its electronic case recording system have continued to dog a London borough, as it failed to move up from ‘requires improvement’ following its latest Ofsted inspection.

The inspectorate found that Lewisham council’s system was “subject to frequent system failures”, which meant that “records may not be up to date, recording takes a disproportionate amount of time, and performance information may be inaccurate”.

When it last fully inspected the council in 2015, Ofsted found a system that was “a stubborn obstacle to good practice and planning”, from which there were “significant difficulties in extracting accurate data” and in relation to which some practitioners had such little trust that they maintained their own records. The limitations of the system were also identified in a focused visit last year.

The latest inspection found that the system had been redesigned and now provided a range of useful performance information, but, despite improvements, problems remained.

In response to the concerns, a Lewisham council spokesperson said: “After the earlier inspections identified shortcomings in our electronic recording system, we started a programme of upgrades, reconfiguration and staff training to address the problem. As the most recent report shows, this work has not yet been completed and we continue to work to improve the underlying IT infrastructure to improve speed and reliability.”

Ongoing early help issues

The inspection found senior managers had “rightly focused” on children at the highest level of risk, but as a result, early help services were still underdeveloped, despite improving them being a recommendation from the 2015 inspection.

The service, which is externally commissioned, lacked capacity with families waiting up to two months for provision, and a management review finding that some saw their needs worsen while waiting. Among those who received a service, assessments were weak and lacked basic information, such as the reason for the assessment.

However, Ofsted found that management oversight of the service had increased and a change to the contract with the provider had increased capacity. Managers were aware of the extent of the work required to establish an effective early help service, said the inspectorate.

Variable practice

The inspection found children in need, children in care, and those subject to child protection plans were regularly visited by their social workers, who knew them very well, and that practitioners undertook purposeful work.

However, it found that, overall, the quality of practice was variable. While a structured tool was used well in stronger assessments to understand risks, strengths and protective factors, in weaker assessments, there is too much description and insufficient analysis.

Child protection and child in need plans were not sufficiently detailed and did not help families to understand what needs to change to improve circumstances for their children, or what would happen if these changes were not made. As a result, some children made insufficient progress and remained on plans for too long.

However, inspectors  noted that disabled children were benefiting from effective services, and that there was sensitive consideration of their needs by knowledgeable social workers.

Social workers in the disabled children team were described as well trained, aspirational for their children, and with good awareness of the increased risk of abuse for this group.

Good support but inconsistent supervision

Social workers felt well-supported by their team and managers, but Ofsted found that supervision and management oversight were inconsistent.

Managers and social workers described having “informal and important” conversations, which had not been recorded, and there was limited evidence of reflective practice, Ofsted said.

Caseloads were still too high in some areas, though where they had reduced this had enabled social workers to build stronger relationships with children and undertake more direct work.

The inspection found the training and professional development of social workers had not received high priority, though there had been a more recent focus on doing so.

Newly qualified social workers were well supported during their first year in employment, the report said, and had protected caseloads and regular supervision.

‘No illusion that this will be challenging’

Damien Egan, the mayor of Lewisham, said the report confirmed the council’s own self-assessment that it needed put work into improve its children’s services.

“While the report rightly recognises that the pace of improvement has increased substantially since last year, and is having a positive impact, the report also highlights a range of areas that must improve,” Egan said.

“I am under no illusion that this will be challenging, but I am confident that we can build on the work we are doing to make sure we continue to make progress and keep up the pace,” he added.

A statement issued by the council added that it was supporting staff through training and improved management to strengthen their social work practice, so that it becomes consistently good. “This is not a quick fix but we are using tried and trusted strategies used by other local authorities who have succeeded in improving the quality of their children’s social care,” it said.

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