Ofsted head praises quality of direct work under Covid but warns of pressures to come as referrals rise

Inspectorate's ungraded visits during pandemic finds lower referrals in some areas have given social workers more time for direct work, with most councils successfully directing resource at those in most need, says Yvette Stanley

Yvette Stanley
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted's national director for social care

Social workers have delivered high-quality direct work under the challenge of Covid-19 as local authorities have sought to direct resources at children and families in greatest need, Ofsted’s national director for social care has said.

Ungraded visits to about 20 councils during the autumn has found them “hunkering down, looking at their social work practice, risk assessing children, and concentrating their energies on those most in need of protection and care and so we had actually seen some good and better work”, Yvette Stanley told Community Care.

In an interview that followed the release of Ofsted’s annual report this week, she said that reductions in referrals during the pandemic had led to “slightly less pressure sometimes on social workers and in some places that’s meant a lower caseload and an ability to do much better direct work”.

Referrals fell sharply in the first months of the pandemic as children and families became increasingly hidden from view and, while they picked up during late summer, DfE surveys on the impact of Covid found that they lagged behind previous years’ numbers during September and October. This was when Ofsted began visiting councils to see how they were responding to practising under the shadow of coronavirus.

She added: “A very small proportion that we visited we have had significant worries about and, where we’ve had those worries, we’ve said so fairly clearly in the report. But overall, it continues to be a positive story despite a hugely challenging context and I just take my hat off to all the staff in local authorities who have clearly been working very very hard and very very diligently to maintain contact with children, with families and to do as good as direct work as they could in quite challenging circumstances.”

‘Lack of visibility of vulnerable children’

However, Ofsted’s annual report said a big concern was “the lack of visibility of vulnerable children” during the period when schools were closed – as schools and early years settings account for about 20% of referrals to councils during normal times. It said children who were particularly vulnerable included disabled children, who were more at risk of abuse in the home and whose parents were placed under additional strain by the loss of care; very young children in care who lost contact with birth families, and babies whose parents struggled when families and health visitors could not visit.

This meant that councils faced dealing with a “legacy of abuse and neglect” over coming months, the report said. Stanley echoed the worries of other sector leaders in anticipating the additional pressures social workers would face this winter, adding: “What local authorities are worried about is an increase in referrals at a time when their resources are under quite a deal of pressure and how they deal with that.

“I think we would expect them to be constantly risk assessing the families that they need to work with and prioritising those with the children at most risk of harm, but we do acknowledge that their resources are under acute pressure and with perhaps the absence of staff, due to the coronavirus, they may not at times have all the resources at their disposal that they would like to be supporting these families.”

Growing concerns over unregistered homes

Ofsted’s annual report, which covered the 2019-20 financial year, also voiced growing concerns about the use of unregistered children’s homes, driven by the lack of provision available to local authorities for looked-after children.

Ofsted conducted 250 investigations into potential unregistered children’s homes in 250 – up from 150 in 2018-19 – around a quarter of which should have been registered on the grounds they were providing accommodation and care – rather than just support – to children and young people.

While some providers were unaware they had to register, the regulator said that other companies were purposefully setting up short-term arrangements to avoid having to register as children’s homes, creating greater instability for children. Holiday schemes in which children are accommodated for no more than 28 days in any 12-month period do not have to register.

In most cases of identified unregistered children’s homes, Ofsted has written to the provider urging them to register, while others have generally ceased operating.

The report also said the Care Standards Act 2000, the legislation which governs regulation of children’s social services, was “out of date” and “does not support creative solutions or allow new service models to develop”, which Stanley said was a reference to registration being based on place rather than setting up bespoke packages of care around a child.

Stanley said Ofsted was in “active discussions” with the DfE on amending the legislation and also seeking additional powers from the department to simplify the process of tackling unregistered homes.

Placement pressures

However, she linked the issue to the lack of provision, particularly for older children with complex needs. “The care population is at its biggest and you’ll know that the volume of teenagers in the system is at its highest, and we know that during coronavirus lockdown the numbers of children waiting for the very specialist welfare justice provision doubled from about 25 a night to closer to 50. So we think that absence of sufficient provision is in part encouraging people to open provision for good reasons and for worrying reasons.”

Recent Ofsted figures showed that the overall number of registered children’s homes in England grew by 133, from April to August this year, to 2,592, the highest number since 2012.

However, in its annual report, the regulator said there had been growth in the market of children’s homes in areas that already had high numbers of homes, yet a shortage in places where they were most needed. For example, in the North West, the number of homes rose by 7%, from 590 to 633, and though numbers rose in London by 11%, they were almost five times lower, at 135, despite the North West having just 42% more looked-after children than the capital as of 2018.

The report said that “no single local authority can fix this on its own”, and central government had a critical role to play. Stanley told Community Care this may require national commissioning of specialist placements.

Ofsted also found a “significant proportion” of voluntary adoption agencies were reporting serious financial problems, with their numbers having decreased by 22% from March 2019 to March 2020.

Stanley said that the voluntary sector has been hit hard by a drop in charitable donations and had had to furlough staff while the general cost of running things remained the same.

Ofsted will resume a phased return to inspections in 2021, with focused visits to local authorities starting in January and ungraded assurance visits to social care providers continuing in January. Routine inspections of both will start in April.

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