Medway council is at risk of losing its children’s services after Ofsted downgraded it to ‘inadequate’ following an inspection that found “dedicated” social workers were not being supported to practise safely.
In the wake of the inspection, the Department for Education appointed a commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, to oversee improvements at the council, and report back by 1 December on whether Medway has sufficient capacity to improve itself within a reasonable timeframe or should lose control of its children’s services.
The latest inspection, carried out last month, saw Medway downgraded from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘inadequate’. Ofsted found most services had deteriorated since its last full inspection in 2015, many vulnerable children were being left at risk of harm for too long and senior leaders were unaware of the extent of the failures.
Inspectors brought to the attention of the authority 74 children who were either at risk of significant harm or where there were unacceptable delays in progressing work, requiring senior managers to act quickly to ensure they were safe.
Excessive workloads and workforce instability
Workloads for social workers were a particular problem. Ofsted inspectors found caseloads in early help and assessment teams were “much too high”, which meant “staff were unable to provide the right support to children in order to reduce the harm that they face”.
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Within the assessment service, most social workers were responsible for over 40 children, and some as many as 55, while practitioners were routinely allocated additional work as they were also responsible for the duty service.
While staff and frontline managers were committed and morale was good, “several reported concerns about their ability to undertake good-quality assessments, make effective plans and take necessary and timely action due to their workload”.
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A significant increase in referrals and high staff vacancies was also impacting the early help service, it found, with dedicated staff not always able to provide a safe service.
Across the department, inspectors found “highly committed and skilled” social workers and managers were regularly working evenings and weekends to see children and complete reports. Inspectors said this was “not sustainable” and criticised senior leaders for not having an “accurate view” of the impact high workloads were having on their staff.
The inspection report said the workforce instability was a key challenge for the council, despite a recruitment campaign helping to reduce the social work vacancy rate from 39% to 25%. Leaders had secured funding to increase the overall number of social workers, the report said, but at the time of inspection the vacancy rate in some teams was still 35%.
Drift and delay
Inspectors found children identified by the multi-agency safeguarding hub as needing statutory assessments were waiting too long to be seen, placing them at risk.
They also noted that while most social workers received regular supervision, managers at all levels were not consistently identifying or challenging drift and delay.
As a result, some children living with serious domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and adult substance misuse were waiting too long in situations of ongoing harm.
Also, too many children spent an extensive period at the pre-care proceedings stage, with no review or progress against agreed actions. Consequently, some children and young people who may need to be in care waited for too long.
Services for children in care and care leavers were rated better, at ‘requires improvement, than the ‘inadequate’ provision for children in need of help and protection, with inspectors noting that decisions to bring children into care were appropriate and that children spoke positively about their carers.
Some children reported being unhappy with frequent changes of social worker, the report said, but despite these changes most children were known well by staff and visited often.
The inspection found some good examples of skilful direct work, where social workers had built strong relationships, supporting children to feel safe to share sensitive information.
Disabled children in need of support were also receiving an effective service, it found, with social workers carrying out child-centred practice and comprehensive assessments.
Ofsted was particularly scathing about the quality of leadership in the authority, which was also rated inadequate. Despite an apparent commitment to improving services, there was a lack of analysis and understanding of risks to children, which inspectors said were “serious weaknesses”.
A plan to improve children’s services was dubbed “perfunctory” and not based on an analysis of existing weaknesses or a full understanding of children’s experiences, with leaders too focused on process and compliance.
Findings of case audits were over-optimistic, leading to false evaluations of the quality and effectiveness of social work, inspectors said.
Many of Ofsted’s 10 recommendations for improvement related to the quality of management and oversight across all services, while it also called for the staffing capacity issues to be addressed.
The government-appointed commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, has significant experience in improvement work with councils, working with authorities including Sandwell, Dudley and Slough.
Under the government’s direction to Medway, she will carry out a review to “determine whether the most effective way of securing and sustaining improvement in Medway is to remove the control of children’s social care services from the council for a period of time”.
Medway said it accepted all the findings of the Ofsted report and committed to making urgent improvements in response. It said that since the inspection, eight social workers had been appointed to reduce caseloads, which had fallen by 20%, while it had also improved arrangements for reviewing cases, tracking progress and ensuring they were dealt with in a timely way.
A new improvement plan will be published in the autumn and progress against it will be reviewed by an independently-chaired improvement board.
Director of children’s services Ian Sutherland said he was pleased that the Ofsted report recognised social workers’ dedication and the high morale across the service.
“The most important thing for me is that children receive the best possible service and I recognise that immediate improvements must be made, including sustainably reducing high caseloads,” he added. “We have strengthened our improvement team to help support the delivery of rapid change.”
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