A struggling council’s dependence on newly-qualified social workers (NQSWs) who lack management support is hampering its ability to make progress, Ofsted has said.
On a focused visit to Herefordshire, where children’s services were rated as ‘requires improvement’ in 2018, inspectors found nearly half of social workers were recently qualified.
Due to vacancies and sickness among team managers, frontline staff were not receiving consistent oversight and supervision, they warned.
“This means leaders and managers have not been successful in creating the conditions needed to support the development of effective social work practice,” inspectors said in their letter published last week, following the visit in early July.
They highlighted workers focusing on parental needs at the expense of hearing children’s voices and understanding the impact of their experiences, leading to risks not always being fully understood.
In 2018, Herefordshire was criticised in three court judgments. The council is currently under Department for Education (DfE) monitoring and an improvement strategy following a damning High Court judgment earlier this year that said the “fitness for purpose” of its children’s social care was in doubt.
In their letter to Cath Knowles, the interim director of children’s services appointed along with other new senior leaders in the wake of the High Court decision, the inspectors recognised that the new leadership and council members had taken the judgment “very seriously” and “accurately identified” the priorities to address.
But they said it was too early to assess the impact of the planned changes and found “little progress” in the quality of practice for children-in-need and on child protection plans since Ofsted’s last focused visit in December 2019.
‘Supervision not always recorded’
Inspectors said the frequency and effectiveness of case supervision was an area for priority action. Ineffective supervision has been highlighted as a problem at the council by Ofsted since 2012, Herefordshire councillors noted when approving its improvement strategy.
The letter found some children’s records showed no evidence of any supervision taking place. Managers they spoke to reported that supervision happened but was “not always recorded due to competing priorities”.
Looking at the impact of almost half the workforce being newly qualified, the letter said NQSWs “have caseloads that are not reflective or appropriate for their skills and knowledge” and “do not consistently receive much-needed guidance and oversight from managers”.
This meant social workers lacked direction and clarity about how plans should progress, the inspectors found, leading to drift and delay for some children. Where supervision was recorded, actions often lacked sufficient purpose and timescales, again causing drift.
‘Overly focused’ on adults
Inspectors found this meant some children stayed on child protection plans for too long and that there was as yet “no routine or effective mechanism” for remedying this poor practice.
They found audits were “overly optimistic” in their evaluations and focused on process rather than supporting social workers to learn. The inspectors noted that the leadership team recognised its quality assurance was not effective and was introducing a new system.
Reviewing child protection plans, they found they were “ineffective” at demonstrating what needs to happen to minimise the risk of him. While plans were “overly focused” on the needs of adults at the expense of children’s wishes and feelings and interventions focus mainly on parents, inspectors also said “parents struggle to understand what they need to do and when they need to do it by”.
Ofsted recognised that home visits took place regularly and praised Herefordshire’s approach to continuing these in person and remotely during the pandemic but said “little attention” was given to children during visits. Inspectors found social workers were able to articulate a “better understanding of children’s needs” but said the voice of the child was not consistently reflected and used to inform assessments, records or plans.
They applauded family support workers’ intensive work with families to develop trusting relationships and improve parenting skills. But the letter again reported a lack of emphasis on working with children, meaning “the analysis of professionals is always incomplete or skewed”.
Recruitment and retention ‘not effective’
Part of Herefordshire’s improvement plan includes independent exit interviews for social workers leaving the service. The inspectors noted recruitment and retention challenges identified in previous visits continued with high turnover, vacancy rates and reliance on agency staff. They found social workers in some teams feeling under “enormous stress” and “burnt out”.
The limited guidance and oversight for the high numbers of newly qualified staff also left this group “vulnerable, and at risk of leaving the service”.
They concluded that the previous leadership team’s recruitment and retention strategy “has not been effective in tackling the authority’s longstanding problem of being unable to attract skilled and experienced permanent social workers.”
The council’s improvement strategy includes an extra £5.2 million to be spent on children’s services over the next two years, a third of which is earmarked for interim staffing.
New leadership team
Herefordshire social workers told inspectors they felt listened to by the new senior leadership team who have arranged drop-in sessions and briefings for staff and said they have “a greater focus on children”.
Cath Knowles and Diana Toynbee, Herefordshire’s cabinet member for children’s services, safeguarding and corporate parenting issued a joint statement saying that it was “reassuring” Ofsted’s priorities reflected their own.
They described the service’s improvement plan as a “long-term vision” and highlighted that the improvement board is independently chaired by a DfE advisor with a “partnership approach” that will “help to ensure that children are at the heart of everything we do and we support and help children, young people, and their families at the right time, in the right way.
“We are fortunate to have passionate and dedicated staff, managers, members, partners, foster carers and the children and young people themselves and we will continue to work together to achieve a ‘good’ Ofsted rating, but we recognise that this will take time,” the statement said.