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.”