DfE gives struggling council £1.7m to hire temporary children’s social workers

Council plans to free up permanent social workers in order to shift ‘culture and practice to prevention and early intervention’

Herefordshire County Council offices
Photo: Wikimedia commons/Roger Cornfoot

The Department for Education (DfE) has given £1.7m to a struggling council so it can hire short-term social workers to reduce the caseloads for permanent staff.

In addition to the DfE money, Herefordshire council published a plan last month to invest another £5.2m into its children’s services to support improvements.

The moves come after Ofsted criticised the authority’s dependence on newly-qualified social workers (NQSWs) who lacked management support and a damning High Court judgment that said the service’s “fitness for purpose” was in doubt. Following the judgment, in a case where social workers pursued a plan for special guardianship orders for children who had made false sexual abuse allegations against their parents, the DfE put Herefordshire on an improvement plan.

Newly-appointed interim director of children’s services Darryl Freeman said the council plans to free up permanent staff to develop services, including an expansion of early help.

Freeman said the court judgment had affected social workers’ morale and confidence but that these were slowly recovering.

DfE support

Herefordshire was previously criticised in three court judgments in 2018 and received a ‘requires improvement’ rating from Ofsted the same year, when inspectors found ‘inadequate’ leadership at the authority.

Following the latest judgment, in March this year, the DfE appointed an independent adviser, Gladys Rhodes White, to chair an improvement board and report to the department every six weeks.

Herefordshire initially appointed Cath Knowles as its interim director of children’s services following the judgment, but Freeman replaced her in September.

Telford and Wrekin council, rated outstanding by Ofsted, was appointed as Herefordshire’s sector led improvement partner to support the improvement programme.

The DfE also initially gave the authority £214,000 to improve its children’s services in 2021-22, and has now added an extra £1.5m in an improvement grant.

Freeman told Community Care that the council would spend the money on recruiting temporary social workers until March 2022, to reduce caseloads for permanent staff. This would free them up to do developmental work, such as increasing its early help services.

Three-year strategy

Herefordshire’s cabinet agreed the council’s three-year improvement plan, overseen by Rhodes White and backed by £5.2m of the authority’s reserves, for its children’s services last month.

In the first year of the plan (until April 2022), the council will focus on social work quality of practice, workforce capacity, supervision and monitoring, and engaging with children to inform its service delivery.

It is during this period that the council will hire additional agency workers to allow managers and frontline practitioners time for training, coaching and mentoring.

“There are clear expectations that, by May 2022, there will be significant improvements in the quality of social work practice and in the leadership and management oversight of the service,” the plan says.

In the second year of the plan (2022-23), the council aims to develop its early help services, shifting the council’s “culture and practice to prevention and early intervention”.

As part of this, it aims to build on its ‘talk community’ service, which directs residents to wellbeing information and local services, groups, activities and events.

And in the final year of the plan, the council aims to ensure any changes it has made are sustainable for the future.

Lack of experience leaves service ‘vulnerable’

Diana Toynbee, Herefordshire’s cabinet member for children’s services, published a report last month that said the council had made mistakes in its recruitment of social workers.

Her report said the authority has been right to reduce its use of agency social workers from 56% to 16% over the past three years. But she said this had come at the expense of the “experience and resilience of those staff that have been recruited to key positions”.

She said the council’s children’s current recruitment strategy failed to “balance permanency with experience, which has left the service vulnerable”.

“The skill base of managers and some social workers is not at a level required to drive forward such a challenging improvement agenda, at the pace needed, to satisfy external scrutiny from the DfE and Ofsted,” her report said.

“Although part of the strategy is rightly to develop and support all managers, the concern around current practice issues, cannot wait for this to be fully implemented.”

The report echoed the recent critical report by Ofsted. This said that NQSWs did not feel “properly prepared and supported for the job” and that there was a lack of ongoing development and specialisation.

Toynbee’s report said some issues faced by Herefordshire, such as increasing costs of children’s social care and difficulties recruiting social workers, were also experienced across the country.

Rise of remote working widens net for recruitment

Freeman said that retention and recruitment of staff were the council’s main priorities for its children’s services.

But he said that Herefordshire, unlike some other authorities, was not running any targeted recruitment campaigns for social workers overseas nor did it offer any “golden hellos” to new employees.

“Interestingly, the feedback from our frontline workforce is that actually pay and conditions aren’t the challenge,” he said.

But Freeman said the council was planning to launch a recruitment campaign just before Christmas.

Freeman said the NQSWs’ caseloads had reduced at the council since the Ofsted visit in July, and that Herefordshire now ensured they all had experienced mentors.

He said recruiting experienced social workers was particularly tough because they were more likely to have a family, which they would have to uproot to move to Herefordshire.

But he said the council’s increased use of flexible working during the Covid-19 pandemic enabled some candidates to “stay based in one place and potentially work in another”.

“There are some positives coming out of the Covid ways of working that we can continue to use,” he said.

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