Ministers have ordered a local authority to improve after inspectors warned that children were being left at risk of harm by overwhelmed social workers.
A focused visit to North East Lincolnshire Council, which last year had the highest caseloads in England according to government figures, found out-of-their-depth practitioners were failing to intervene promptly or appropriately in children’s lives. Inspectors found some children at risk who required urgent intervention.
Despite senior management being well aware of the problems at the council, their response was weak and slow, Ofsted said.
Problems implementing a new case management system meant performance management data had been unreliable for months, the watchdog added.
“This does not enable senior leaders to have an accurate understanding of performance, or, most importantly, the level of risk, needs, and experiences of children currently,” inspectors said.
An improvement notice issued by the Department for Education at the same time as the focused visit letter said that North East Lincolnshire must rapidly improve in five priority areas identified by Ofsted:
- Conducting visits proportionate to children’s level of risk and need;
- The quality of planning for children;
- The frequency and effectiveness of multi-agency reviews;
- Taking action after cases are audited or challenged by child protection chairs;
- Escalating to pre-proceedings in a timely manner.
Two unresolved action points from a previous monitoring visit – around the quality of assessments and the effectiveness of oversight – must also be addressed. Should the the council not comply with the improvement notice, it may face statutory intervention, the DfE document said.
Annual government children’s social care statistics published last February revealed that across children’s services, North East Lincolnshire social workers were handling almost 27 cases apiece, despite the authority being rated ‘good’.
Last month, Steve Kay, the director of children and family services, resigned in the wake of a series of reports by local title Grimsby Live. Whistleblowers told local reporters that “hundreds” of children were being left at risk because of spiralling caseloads of up to 60, with one three-year-old being found with a cocktail of drugs in her system.
In 2017, a serious case review criticised North East Lincolnshire children’s services after a four-year-old, Poppy Widdison, died in the wake of being fed prescription drugs.
In its latest focused visit letter, Ofsted warned that social workers – including newly-qualified practitioners – faced “exceedingly high” caseloads.
The knock-on effects included visits being carried out too rarely, records not being kept, assessments being left incomplete or performed ineffectually, and social workers – some of whom were poorly supervised – leaving frequently.
Senior leaders ‘too slow’
Staff sometimes went months without supervision and, when it did take place, it was not effective in improving the quality of practice.
“Senior leaders have acted too slowly to address the significantly high caseloads and deficits in practice in the children’s assessment and safeguarding teams,” the letter said.
“Audits seen by inspectors, including child protection conference chair scrutiny and challenge, are thorough and accurately outline where drift and delay are occurring in a child’s case, as well as identifying practice strengths,” it added.
“However, this does not lead to remedial action to address practice shortfalls, progress children’s plans, or safeguard children from known risks.”
Inspectors found a handful of more positive signs, including that some social workers felt “supported and content” and that the edge of care service provided some “skilled”, albeit slow interventions.
They also found “strong political and corporate support”, that an improvement board had been set up and that external consultants had been drafted in to provide challenge, but progress had been “too slow”.
‘Similar challenges to elsewhere’
A statement issued by North East Lincolnshire said the council fully accepted Ofsted’s findings, that it faced challenges “similar to those experienced in other parts of the country” and that it had recently invested £2m into services.
“Our responsibility is to work with our partners in North East Lincolnshire to make sure children in our area are safe,” it said. “As a result, we’ll be looking to significantly increase the pace of some of the changes through the improvement plan we’ve recently introduced and which the report highlights.”
In the statement, the council pledged to address the problems it faces recruiting and retaining social workers.
“Our key aim has, and will always be, to make sure children in our area are not at risk and to do that we need to make certain that our social workers are continuing to get the right support, meaning that they can help protect the young people and families they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” it said.
‘Concerted and dynamic change’ at Croydon
Among a slew of other Ofsted reports delayed by the general election and bulk-released this week:
- A seventh monitoring visit to ‘inadequate’ Croydon resulted in inspectors praising the council’s “concerted and dynamic” leadership, which they said was driving rapid process across all areas of children’s services.
- A fourth monitoring visit to Surrey found caseloads had reduced “markedly”, with management oversight “visible and regular” and a phased implementation of a new practice model underway. Practice was though “not yet strong for all children”, inspectors said.
- A fifth monitoring visit to Sandwell Children’s Trust found improvements had been made from a low base, including in relation to direct work and management oversight, but needed to be accelerated to tackle variability in the quality of assessments and care planning.
- A third monitoring visit to Bradford found the pace of improvement at the West Yorkshire authority was too slow, but noted that newly recruited directors had “appropriately taken the time” to evaluate problems and were embarking on a restructure.
- A fourth monitoring to Buckinghamshire council concluded that improvements to services for children in care were “limited”, with ongoing poor practice, but said IROs were maintaining greater oversight than before.
- A focused visit to recently formed Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council discovered drift and delay in permanence planning. But Ofsted’s letter praised the “unstinting” efforts of senior leaders as they worked on a programme of transformation.
There were also reports released from focused visits to Bath and North East Somerset, Bedford, Brent, Lancashire, Redcar and Cleveland and Walsall, and joint area child protection inspections at Milton Keynes and Sefton.