‘Significant’ cut in social worker caseloads helps council rise to ‘good’

Investment in Walsall’s children’s services means practitioners have more time with children, enabling ‘exceptional practice’, finds Ofsted

Image of magnifying glass, notebook and keyboard (credit: peterschreiber.media / Adobe Stock)
(credit: peterschreiber.media / Adobe Stock)

Social workers have been freed up to spend more time with children after council investment led to a “significant reduction” in caseloads, Ofsted has found.

Ofsted rated Walsall council as good overall at a full inspection last month, after telling the authority it required improvement in 2017 and rating it as inadequate nine years ago.

Inspectors found some “exceptional practice” at the council, which it credited to the authority’s “deliberate corporate investment” in children’s services helping to create a “skilled and stable workforce”.

Department for Education (DfE) figures show that Walsall’s agency social worker rate halved from 30.5% in September 2017 to 14.8% in September 2020, while its vacancy rate fell from 31.4% to 13.3%. According to the DfE’s caseloads measure, these fell from 19.9 in 2018 to 13.4 in 2020.

But while Ofsted rated leadership and services for children in care and care leavers as good, it said provision for children who need help and protection required improvement

Workforce investment

At its previous inspection in 2017, Ofsted found Walsall’s efforts to improve its children’s services had been undermined by a high turnover rate of frontline social workers and first-line managers.

In its latest report, the inspectorate praised senior leaders for investing in workforce recruitment, retention and wellbeing as well as understanding the impact of Covid-19 on staff, children, and their families.

Inspectors also commended Walsall for its implementation, during the pandemic, of the family safeguarding model – under which multi-disciplinary teams work with families to address the parental needs that increase risks to children.

Its report said social workers had used the model to “work sensitively and skillfully” to understand the impact on parents of mental ill-health, substance misuse and domestic abuse.

‘Impressive’ interventions

And it found that the multi-agency safeguarding teams provided “impressive, effective and creative” interventions that had helped parents make and sustain changes to improve children’s circumstances.

In relation to children in care, Ofsted said they built “strong and trusting relationships” with inspectors seeing “excellent examples of sensitive and skilled life-story work that helps children to understand their experiences”.

In terms of areas for improvement, Ofsted said Walsall needed to better apply thresholds so children receiving early help could access statutory services when they needed them.

It said the managers should have better oversight of children living in private fostering arrangements and unregistered children’s homes and the quality of supervision records and analysis needed to be more consistent.

‘We were letting our children down’

Timothy Wilson, portfolio holder for children’s services at the council, said it had been on a “journey of improvement” for many years, but recognised there was “still more to do”.

“Nine years ago our children’s services were criticised for being inadequate, we were letting our children down.

“Since then we have delivered our ambitious Walsall Right 4 Children transformation programme and I am pleased that Ofsted has recognised that we are making positive changes to the lives of children and their families who need our support.”

Good rating for new council

Meanwhile, in its first full inspection, Dorset council, created in 2019, earned a good rating, with leadership rated outstanding.

This is an improvement on the requires improvement score held by the former Dorset County Council – most of whose area is covered by the new authority – when it was wound up.

Ofsted particularly praised Dorset’s leadership, in particular its approach to performance management, “imaginative” commissioning and prioritisation of recruitment and retention.

“A stable, permanent workforce and manageable caseloads enable constructive relationships to be built with children and families. Staff take pride in their work. Good work is expected, delivered and celebrated,” it said in its report.

“We know there is more to be done to ensure all children and families are getting the right support at the right time, and this will be a priority for us, going forwards,” said Theresa Leavy, Dorset council’s executive director for children’s services, following last month’s report on the inspection in September and October.

“Our commitment to improving experiences for children remains our top priority. This is a day for our staff to be very proud of what they have achieved over the past couple of years, but our journey to improve even more, continues. We will carry on striving for excellence and to be the best we can be.”

Improved services for care leavers

Ofsted also visited Derbyshire in October after rating the council as requires improvement at its last full inspection in 2019.

Inspectors praised senior managers’ “determined focus” on the authority’s arrangements for supporting care leavers since the full inspection and said that “bringing the service in-house has resulted in significant improvements”.

The inspectorate’s report said a “passionate and skilled workforce” and effective strategic partnerships were enabling positive experiences and progress for care leavers, with most now receiving levels of support consistent with their needs.

But it said the council must consistently review pathway plans when needs or circumstances changed and produce better evidence that actions agreed by the safety panel had been robustly tracked and completed.

“I’m so pleased to see this Ofsted report highlight the achievements of not only our leaving care service but also our amazing young people as they leave care and start their adventure into adulthood,” said cabinet member for children’s services Julie Patten.

“We’ll continue driving forward with even more improvements to the service following this positive inspection result.”

‘Positive environment’

Ofsted visited Essex last month, which it rated as outstanding overall at its last full inspection in 2018, to monitor its support for care leavers.

It said in its report that Essex’s leaders created a positive environment for practitioners and their managers to find solutions to challenges faced by the care leavers they worked with and successfully support their transition to independence.

But the inspectorate told the council to increase the numbers of care leavers engaged in education, training and employment and ensure service levels remained high across the county.

Cabinet member for children’s services Beverley Egan said Essex was aware of this and working towards improvements.

“Our personal assistants are exhibited as highly valued by the young people they work with, caring, persistent, hardworking and willing to go that extra mile – and that our managers have created the right environment for practitioners to be resourcefully creative in their solutions to challenges faced,” she added.

Consistent leadership supporting stronger practice

In Birmingham, inspectors found that “under consistent leadership”, the children’s trust running services in the city was “establishing a more child-focused culture which supports stronger social work practice”.

Following a focused visit in October looking at children in care provision, inspectors praised learning opportunities for practitioners, which they said were helping build an increasingly stable workforce. Ofsted also commended the “increasingly reflective” supervision and the quality of management oversight at the ‘requires improvement’ organisation.

Inspectors found that social workers knew children well and were advocates for them, while independent reviewing officers provided effective oversight of their plans.

Ofsted also praised provision for looked-after children with a disability and unaccompanied children, for whom social workers had “developed knowledgeable specialist expertise”.

However, the inspectorate said Birmingham needed to improve placement sufficiency to avoid the use of unregistered homes, where some placements had not received sufficient management oversight. Also, it found that reviews were not taking being brought forward for the small number of children who had unplanned placement breakdowns.

“This means the child’s plan is not reviewed when there has been a substantive change, to ensure that the new plan and placement arrangements meet the needs of these very vulnerable children,” inspectors said.

Social workers ‘skilled at building early relationships’

At Lambeth, in London, inspectors found that social workers were skilled at building relationships with children early in their engagement, often in adversarial and stressful conditions.

In a visit in late October focused on the ‘requires improvement’ council’s front door, Ofsted found that risks to children were identified and acted on quickly, with good links between the referral hub and the council’s assessment teams.

The inspectorate praised the quality of assessments, saying that they were strengths-based and empathetic to parents’ entrenched difficulties, but also kept the focus firmly on the child.

However, it said that Lambeth needed to improve its analysis of cases where children were re-referred in order to understand why early interventions had not resulted in sustained improvements.

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4 Responses to ‘Significant’ cut in social worker caseloads helps council rise to ‘good’

  1. Alan December 7, 2021 at 9:52 am #

    Really? Reducing caseloads to allow social workers to actually see people improves experiences all round? Revelation.

  2. Critical Eye December 7, 2021 at 6:35 pm #

    How many cases were they holding and what were they cut too?🤔

  3. Arron Batley-Simpson December 7, 2021 at 11:55 pm #

    There should be a legal limit on caseloads.

  4. carol December 8, 2021 at 10:16 pm #

    ‘good overall’ in a Town that is reported to have more than 140 vulnerable children at risk of being criminally or sexually exploited’ ?? That figure suggests there certainly needs improvement in safeguarding. I am unsure whether they do but inspectors should speak to families involved with children’s services to get a more informed and honest perspective overall.