Council ordered to improve after Ofsted warns ‘exceedingly high’ caseloads putting children at risk

Children at risk requiring urgent intervention at North East Lincs on back of lack of social work visits, poor assessments and dearth of supervision

Image of pressure gauge (Photo: Palo/Flickr Creative Commons)
Photo: Palo/Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Whistleblower fears

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:

There were also reports released from focused visits to Bath and North East Somerset, Bedford, BrentLancashire, Redcar and Cleveland and Walsall, and joint area child protection inspections at Milton Keynes and Sefton.

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3 Responses to Council ordered to improve after Ofsted warns ‘exceedingly high’ caseloads putting children at risk

  1. Penny Sutton December 20, 2019 at 10:30 pm #

    I’m not surprised at all by this finding from Ofsted. I started my social work career in Children’s Services in Grimsby but after only 18 months had my first burn out due to having 41 children on my caseload. Supervision was inadequate and support from senior management was abysmal. I cannot say the same of my friends and colleagues who were all incredibly supportive of each other. finally left after two years to become an agency worker, mainly in Norfolk. Sadly my health has continued to decline and l’m now ill health retired with M.E. I really do hope that for the children of Grimsby and their dedicated social workers that N.E. Lincolnshire Council really has taken on board the concerns raised by Ofsted and that the money which has been allocated will be wisely spent on employing more social workers and support staff.

  2. Andy December 24, 2019 at 7:44 am #

    I’ve left the profession after many (sometimes deeply frustrating) years. We’ve all read articles like this in CC over the years. Some authorities manage to make improvements whilst the performance of others plummets. Children’s social work remains an amazingly inconsistent field of work.

  3. Mary December 24, 2019 at 3:52 pm #

    I started my career off at North East Lincs and within 3 months had a case load of 54 with lots of sleepless nights of worry. The culture has remained the same for the last ten years with working until the early of hours at night and at weekends being the norm. Managers are often recruited after being qualified for two years and with no experience in supervising and case decision making. The paper work to complete is horrendous which is often repetitive and time consuming with very spare time to see children. The only way the culture will change is with a clear out of senior management and employing suitably qualified staff however where North East Lincs is situated good quality Social Workers are sparse.