City’s children ‘exposed to significant risk’ as social worker shortage bites, Ofsted warns

Focused visit to Nottingham finds systemic practice weaknesses and staff 'unable to cope with volume of work'

Image of empty desk (credit: Racle Fotodesign / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Racle Fotodesign / Adobe Stock)

Child protection services in Nottingham are deteriorating, with some children “exposed to significant risk”, in part because there are too few social workers, inspectors have warned.

“Despite efforts to increase recruitment, there have been  significant shortfalls in capacity, with insufficient social workers and managers to cope with the volume of work,” Ofsted said in a letter following up a focused visit last month.

“In addition, systemic weaknesses in social work practice across the service have led to risks to children not being understood or responded to,” the letter added, ordering the council to take priority action to address both areas.

Nottingham received a full inspection in November 2018, when it was judged ‘requires improvement’ across the board, with inspectors raising concerns then that social worker shortages were undermining the quality of service for children.

‘Lack of effective intervention’

The 2018 full inspection report also warned that social work practice and management oversight were not consistently good enough, and the focused visit found this was still the case.

“Weak analysis within assessments leads to poor decisions about the next steps, and children not being responded to at the right threshold,” Ofsted said. “A lack of effective intervention means that too many children are being re-referred to children’s social care when their situations do not improve.”

Where there were difficulties contacting or seeing children, resolutions were not always sought quickly, leaving some children off the radar for long periods with no decisions taken about next steps, Ofsted’s letter said.

“Once they are developed, plans are not consistently good. The majority of plans do not include child-centred outcomes or goals, and do not include clear measures or timescales,” it added. “As a result, they do not provide an effective mechanism to evaluate if children’s situations are improving.”

In some cases, decisions were made that children’s situations had improved when in fact there was no evidence of sustained change, inspectors found.

“When children’s situations are not improving, the response is too slow,” Ofsted said. “The pace of response is weak and children are left living in neglectful situations for too long before action is taken.” This was despite neglect being a priority improvement area in Nottingham, with recent training of social workers yet to show any impact on practice.

A new learning and improvement framework for senior staff had also failed deliver a coherent or consistent evaluation of children’s experiences, Ofsted said. “Senior managers and leaders do not have an accurate understanding of the quality of practice,” the focused visit letter warned.

‘We need to do more’

Responding to the findings of the focused visit, Nottingham council’s portfolio holder for children and young people, Cheryl Barnard, acknowledged it had shown that some of the city’s support for vulnerable children was “just not good enough”.

“I am sorry we have fallen below the standards that we and Ofsted expect and that our children and families deserve,” said Barnard. “I know that all our dedicated staff care deeply about their outcomes and we are determined to make the improvements needed. We fully accept Ofsted’s findings and are absolutely committed to implementing the recommendations they have made.”

Barnard added that social workers had been under “increasing pressure” and said the council had been working hard to meet the extra demand it faced.

“But this report makes clear we need to do more,” she said. “We need to take action to have enough people doing this important work, as well as ensuring it is done consistently to the high standard required.”

Nottingham council will now be putting extra funding aside to try to deal with the issues raised by Ofsted, Barnard said.

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