Social workers ‘overwhelmed’ as practice deteriorates at council

Senior managers unaware of extent of weaknesses at Halton council where supervision is failing to address poor practice or help social workers identify risk, finds Ofsted

Image of stack of files (credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)
(credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)

Social workers are overwhelmed by high caseloads and hampered by “highly inconsistent” supervision, Ofsted has found on a visit to a struggling council.

Inspectors said practice had deteriorated at Halton council since it was rated requires improvement in March last year. They found that senior managers were not aware of the extent of the serious weaknesses they identified and their impact on children.

“Too many children are living in situations where there is unassessed risk and there are delays in taking timely action to reduce risk,” the inspectorate said.

It said leaders took swift remedial action to tackle the concerns identified by inspectors, including by bringing in additional social work capacity and expertise.

However, Ofsted found that social workers, though highly committed, felt “overwhelmed by the high demands of their caseloads” in the face of significant recruitment and retention issues.

Department for Education figures show that Halton’s agency social worker rate rose from 11.7% to 28.7% from September 2019 to September 2020, while its vacancy rate increased from 13.6% to 20.5%.

Direct work ‘absent’

Ofsted said children were not visited in line with assessed risk or changes in circumstances, and most visits were not purposeful, with direct work to understand children’s experiences absent. Some children were left in risky situations for too long, due to a lack of timely escalation to pre-proceedings.

Ofsted acknowledged the high levels of deprivation in the North West borough and the significant impact of high Covid-19 rates, leading to prolonged lockdowns and high and deepening levels of neglect. However, it said there was “no clear and consistent approach to managing” the neglect. This left some children involved with statutory services for significant chunks of their lives and too many experiencing second or subsequent child protection plans because of recurring concerns.

It said these issues had been picked up by senior managers in an audit, and this was shaping a revised neglect strategy. However, inspectors were generally critical of management oversight. Supervision, though regular, mostly lacked reflection, left poor practice unchallenged and did not help practitioners identify risk or take steps to improve practice.

Case records had many gaps, which meant they were “not supporting accountable practice” and Halton’s quality assurance processes were “not helping managers to have a clear line of sight to frontline practice”.

“As a result, senior managers were not aware of the extent of these shortfalls and what they mean for children,” it said.

DfE notified on improvements needed

Ofsted said Halton needed, as a priority, to improve its assessment and management of risks to children, including the frequency of visits, and management oversight and supervision.

It said it had informed the DfE about what needs to improve – which may trigger intervention in Halton by the department – and gave the council 70 working days to come up with an action plan to address the weaknesses identified.

In response to Ofsted’s visit, a Halton spokesperson said it took the findings “incredibly seriously”, and that it had reviewed cases following the visit to ensure children were safeguarded.

“We recognise and acknowledge many of the areas highlighted by the inspectors and have already taken significant steps to improve practice and strengthen our workforce capacity,” the spokesperson added.

“There are some significant challenges that underpin these issues and while work is already underway to deliver the improvements needed, we accept that more still needs to be done.”

The report comes with the council – as of the end of September – projecting a £5.4m overspend on its £24.9m net children’s services budget, mainly due to the cost of out-of-area placements.

However, the spokesperson said: “We will continue to invest in children’s services; to recruit frontline staff; and to retain and support our current workforce, who have had exceptional demands placed on them as a result of Covid-19.”

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7 Responses to Social workers ‘overwhelmed’ as practice deteriorates at council

  1. Tahin November 26, 2021 at 3:09 pm #

    What was that narrative about CPD and Registration raising standards and ensuring competent management, reflective supervision and safe practice again?

    • Arlene November 30, 2021 at 2:49 pm #

      I agree whole hardly. Due to visa complications I have our of work since Nov 2020. My son was found dead in his home in July, started a new job in Sept. Was there f 1 day and got covid. Fell down the stairs and now having a full knee replacement on Dec 1st. Mercy and they want me to worry about CPD. Have been trying to get through hoping to get an exention.

  2. Carol November 28, 2021 at 11:42 am #

    Always wanting perfection ofsted and local authorities with high case loads, overwhelmed social workers and no staff. Social workers leaving in droves.
    Team’s are diminishing and ofsted et al still want quality. Beggars belief!

    • Miz December 3, 2021 at 7:06 am #

      Well said Carol it’s just too much the paperwork the whole system.needs overhauling

  3. Denice November 28, 2021 at 12:25 pm #

    It’s not just children’s services that have burnt out social workers.

    Adult social care workers are trying to balance the lack of home care provision due to the nation care crisis against the saturation of placement in care homes with the effect on a person’s article 8 rights.

    Hospitals are discharging into the community into care homes as there is no reablement support to promote indepdence and reduce impact and dependence on services.

    Traditional home care and care home placements are been impacted by the covid immunization row that carers are being sacked due to them not having their jabs.

    This potentially comes to adult social work as safeguarding, we become the targets of relatives anger as we are responsible for putting their loved one into a care home and making them pay for the placement which is more costly and is not their choice.

    We are all stretched and working at full capacity. This is a potentially dangerous situation and yet we get no acknowledgement from the government who states that the “new” which has been identified to support the social care system most of the funding is going to the health services.

    I am not surprised and remain faithful to my vocation and will do all that I can to maintain safe and proportionate practice along with my colleagues in ADULT social care.

  4. Alec Fraher November 30, 2021 at 6:10 pm #

    Come On. The key words are a lack of management oversight. This means the Council as a whole. Not just social workers.

    Councils struggle to satisfy their FOIA obligations in respect of cobtracts. Ask to be given information on the indivisible obligations for social protection for children and adults and most could direct you to the advertised publicity about joint services. Ask for information under the FOIA about how contracts are let and the corporate door shuts. The ICO are sitting on their hands too.

    Much of the statutory reviewing for both adult and children’s services is subsumed to service level contracts. The separation of the responsibility for assessment and delivery one of the critical and determinant factors.

    Farmer and Owen in Private Lives, Public Risks didn’t foresee the marketisation of services as having a fragmenting impact. Why would they.?Then 80% of s47 responses met expectations. so where’s the follow up research?

    Was Quality Protects the trojan horse for outsourcing that most never saw coming?

    This means social workers have had their hands tied behind their backs for 15yrs.

    Interestingly, York University are merging Social Work within their School of Management..Maybe the current linear and activity based assessments
    of social work will get the leg up to establish it as a complex adaptive system as Munroe urged a decade ago..

  5. Key December 5, 2021 at 5:34 pm #

    If workers and senior managers stopped concentrating on trying to tick boxes and hit targets and focused more on the children and family’s before l, prier and after then they wouldn’t seem to be in this predicament. People send there focus too much on trying to save or earn money and hitting unrealistic target, as children and staff seem to be just numbers/ names on a data base spredsheet. There seems to be a lack of communication and consistency throughout the services and organisations should be working more together and linking in with each other more.