The director of children’s services has resigned and the government has intervened in a council after Ofsted found children at risk of harm and social workers “significantly under-resourced”.
Ofsted downgraded North East Lincolnshire council to ‘inadequate’ after a full inspection last month found services had “significantly deteriorated” since the good rating it earned in 2017.
Inspectors said leaders had failed to prioritise children’s needs, invest sufficiently in services or address priority actions identified in Ofsted visits since 2017. This included in a 2019 visit that found children were being put at risk by “exceedingly high” caseloads, which led ministers to order the council to improve.
Leaders also did not sufficiently understand the quality of practice or the level of risk children were experiencing, Ofsted found.
Significant safeguarding concerns
During the inspection, Ofsted identified significant safeguarding concerns in relation to several children, prompting the council to take remedial action in some cases.
After the inspection report was released last week, the council announced that Lisa Arthey had stepped down as DCS after eight months in post and two years at the council.
It also confirmed that the Department for Education (DfE) was appointing a commissioner for the authority, which means the education secretary has concluded that it is failing to perform its children’s social care functions adequately.
Workforce ‘significantly under-resourced’
The inspection found that the workforce was “significantly under-resourced”, with not enough social workers to meet demand, leaving children vulnerable and contributing to a failure to protect them from harm.
DfE figures shows that North East Lincolnshire has had the highest average social worker caseloads in the country in 2018, 2019 and 2020, though numbers fell from 32.7 to 24.9 from 2019-20.
While senior managers had increased capacity and brought in project teams to reduce caseloads and address weaknesses identified in previous Ofsted visits, this did not go far enough. Also, it was unclear how sustainable resources for the project teams were, leading to uncertainty for staff and managers.
Ofsted found that a high turnover of social workers and managers had led to multiple changes for children, inconsistency in planning, and drift and delay. This was particularly the case for children exposed to neglect.
Department for Education (DfE) figures show that North East Lincolnshire’s turnover rate was 25.9% in September 2020, up from 22.1% in 2017.
And the council’s agency social worker rate tripled from 8.2% in 2017 to 24.5% in 2020, while its vacancy rate more than doubled from 13.3% to 28.4% during that time.
Inspectors said that this “long-term instability” meant some “children and families were unable to consistently build meaningful relationships with their social workers”, with “multiple negative consequences for children”.
Among children in care, it led to “significant delay in their need for permanence being assessed, in achieving legal permanence and securing a stable home”.
Management and practice failings
As well as criticising leaders, the inspection found that managers at all levels did “not ensure that children benefit[ed] from safe and effective social work”.
Gaps in supervision meant that social workers were “not helped to reflect on their practice or receive challenge in a structured or constructive way”.
Performance management and quality assurance were ineffective, with high management turnover and a lack of experienced auditors resulting in audits being “overly positive” and focused on compliance rather than the experiences of children.
The report also found practice weaknesses across several areas. This included a “heavy reliance on written safety plans to keep children safe without any assessment of parents’ ability to keep to them. A lack of understanding of domestic abuse meant safety plans put unrealistic expectations on victims of abuse.
Ofsted said practitioners were over-optimistic about parents’ ability to change and sometimes failed to recognise non-compliance.
As a result, inspectors found that some children’s cases were closed or stepped down without risk and need being fully understood or addressed, leaving children at risk”.
The inspectorate urged the council to respond better to allegations against professionals and ordered it to review all designated officer decisions for the last six months.
“When children make allegations of abuse by professionals, the local authority response is not robust,” it said.
“The designated officer position is not held at the right level of independence, seniority, skill or experience.
“Decisions regarding allegations against professionals have been found to be flawed and as such leaders cannot be sure that the right decisions have been taken to safeguard children.”
Council ready to work with commissioner
The council said it accepted Ofsted’s findings and was ready to work with the DfE’s commissioner to improve through the accelerated implementation of its three-year improvement plan, launched in 2019.
The council said this was leading to positive change, citing Ofsted’s praise for child exploitation and early help services – though inspectors stressed the latter was not fully staffed – and how permanently employed social workers knew their children well and carried out purposeful visits.
Ian Lindley, portfolio holder for children’s services, said the Covid-19 pandemic had derailed improvements to the council’s services.
“For almost 18 months it was impossible to move forward in key areas of looked after children, face-to-face relationship building and social worker recruitment, the latter being a root cause of some of our issues,” he said.
The council said that while caseloads for individual social workers had reduced to 23, this was still above the national average, which DfE data showed as being 16.3 in 2020.
Lindley added. “We are determined to meet these challenges. We will not shy away from this, instead we will rise to it.”
“Now, with the support and help we will receive from the commissioner, our partners and our dedicated and committed workforce, we will continue to grow and build this service back in a way that protects and indeed enhances the lives of our children,” he added.