Stronger leadership delivering ‘early signs of progress’ at ‘inadequate’ council despite high caseloads

Inspectors find ‘huge fragilities’ remain at Torbay, with children waiting too long for services, but see signs of recovery under new leadership

Photo: Андрей Яланский/Adobe Stock

Ofsted has found signs of progress at Torbay council thanks to stronger leadership, but the ‘inadequate’ authority is still struggling with high caseloads and children waiting too long for services.

In its latest monitoring visit – the council’s fourth since it was rated ‘inadequate’ for the second time in June 2018 – inspectors said they were ‘encouraged’ by the scale of work achieved since their last visit (in October 2019), but have concerns about the council’s ‘highly variable quality of practice’.

The inspection follows the recent dissolution of Torbay’s partnership with Plymouth – overseen by Plymouth’s director of children’s services, Alison Botham – which was implemented in April 2018 with the hope of improving Torbay’s children’s services.

However, the expected benefits failed to materialise and the decision to end the partnership has seen Torbay appoint an acting director of children’s services (DCS), Nancy Meehan, as well as additional interim senior staff and an independent commissioner.

With the main findings of the visit highlighting concerns over varying quality of practice and high caseloads, Ofsted said newly appointed senior leaders were clear of the work required to secure minimum standards of practice for all vulnerable children in Torbay.

The visit focused on the safeguarding assessment teams (SATS) and safeguarding and family support services teams (SAFS). Ofsted found social workers in these teams were often responsible for over thirty children, with a few having caseloads of up to forty. The council has staffed two additional teams within these services to tackle the high caseloads.

A focus on recruitment and retention

The monitoring visit found high numbers of agency staff in all teams, at all levels and highlighted the increased risk to improvement this created within the council. At the time of the visit on 8 January, 78% of SATS teams and 43% of SAFS teams were agency staff.

Ofsted found that recruitment and retention continue to be a ‘high priority and challenge’ for Torbay. Inspectors said that senior leaders were focusing on ensuring it was an attractive place to work, including by providing enhanced support for newly qualified social workers and developing a social work academy.

Meehan said: “We have ambitious plans to recruit more permanent social workers to improve capacity and reduce caseloads within the service.”

‘Leaders are highly visible and accessible’

The visit reported that morale was good and social workers were highly committed. Ofsted found children’s services social workers remained in Torbay because of the support they received from team managers, who were ’constantly available’ to debrief staff upon returning from visits.

Most managers were found to know the children they are responsible for, but some management recording was weak, with routine supervision – including for some newly qualified staff – not frequent enough.

Inspectors also found that leaders were “highly visible and accessible, inspiring increased
confidence within the workforce”.

The monitoring visit also acknowledged the ‘considerable’ political support there was for improving Torbay’s children’s services, underpinned by investment. The council has proposed increasing its children’s services budget by £9.8m, in real terms, to £46.5m in 2020-21. As of January, it was predicting an overspend of £6.7m in the service for 2019-20, driven primarily by the cost of looked-after children’s placements.

Meehan added: “We are absolutely committed to improving our children’s service in Torbay – we know what needs to be done, there’s lots to do and it won’t happen overnight – but we have a robust improvement plan in place to support the changes required to make this happen.”

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