‘Turmoil, instability and drift’ driven by senior staff turnover sees Bury children’s services rated ‘inadequate’

Ofsted warns needs of children in Greater Manchester borough not being met after sharp deterioration in child protection services during last year

Image of Bury Town Hall (image: Chemical Engineer / Wikimedia Commons)
Bury Town Hall (image: Chemical Engineer / Wikimedia Commons)

Turnover of senior leaders at Bury children’s services has fuelled ‘turmoil, instability and drift’ at all levels, leaving children at risk of significant harm, Ofsted has warned after an inspection grading the council ‘inadequate’.

Inspectors found that since a focused visit in autumn 2020 there had been “mounting concerns” about case volumes, staff turnover and the resulting impact on children and families.

But despite operational managers persistently raising the alarm and requesting extra capacity, little action had been taken until recently, with the departures of a string of senior bosses including the director and assistant director of children’s services leaving services rudderless.

Ofsted noted that the council was making efforts to get a grip on the situation, having commissioned the Local Government Association to conduct a peer review – resulting in an improvement board being set up to drive progress. It has also appointed experienced DCS Jeanette Richards, formerly of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils, initially on a six-month interim basis.

But inspectors said it was “too early” for new senior leaders to have brought about significant changes in the quality of practice. The council was also struggling to embed a new practice model – because staff were too busy, were not staying in posts and were fatigued by online learning during the pandemic – which was exacerbating the situation.

‘Assessments not focused on impact of harmful experiences’

The most worrying findings from the inspection related to Bury’s services for children in need of help and protection, who Ofsted found were being failed in multiple ways.

Opportunities to identify risk at an early stage were being missed because of a lack of understanding around the impact of cumulative harm – especially around domestic abuse – at the front door, which had become less effective in part because of Covid-related disruption to co-location of agencies.

Thresholds were not being consistently applied, inspectors found, with some children being directed to early help when they should have received a statutory social work assessment.

Where assessments were taking place, Ofsted found they were “mostly overly focused on adults and concerned with the presenting problem, to the detriment of understanding the impact of cumulative harm on children’s broader needs and risks”.

“Parental capacity for sustained change is not consistently considered in assessments,” the inspection report said. “They are too often based on parental self-reporting, and are not regularly updated when circumstances change [meaning] that assessments are not focused enough on the impact of harmful experiences on children, which leads to over-optimistic decision-making and unidentified risk.”

Against the backdrop of high staff turnover, many children were experiencing delays in having plans progressed. Meanwhile others were not being adequately protected because of an over-reliance on “unrealistic” written agreements with parents.

“When parenting does not improve, timely authoritative action to escalate into the pre-proceedings stage of the public law outline is not always taken, leaving some children in ongoing situations of neglect,” Ofsted found. “Once cases are escalated into pre-proceedings, there is inconsistent management oversight to support timely applications into court should change not be achieved.”

‘Children waiting too long’

Inspectors found services for children in care and care leavers were less troubled, grading them ‘requires improvement’ and noting that most children were entering care in a planned way.

Ofsted said senior managers had improved the quality of social work practice and children’s experiences by commissioning a new specialist court team in order to get on top of excessive caseloads.

‘However, some children have waited too long in neglectful or harmful circumstances before coming into care and this has increased the complexity of their needs,” they said. “In some cases, placement decision-making is influenced by the lack of foster placements to meet the needs of vulnerable children.”

Inspectors also found that inconsistent assessments of parents and connected carers were delaying court proceedings – already held up by the pandemic – for some children.

They warned that high levels of agency staff also meant that too many children were experiencing multiple changes of social worker, impacting negatively on their ability to form relationships.

‘Under new management’

Tamoor Tariq, deputy leader and cabinet member for children, young people and skills, apologised for the service failings uncovered by Ofsted.

“The council and its partners began work earlier this year to improve our children’s services and we have already taken immediate action to keep children safe,” he said. “We are determined now to make a positive difference quickly while at the same time putting in place the long-term improvements needed.”

Meanwhile Geoff Little, Bury council’s chief executive, said children’s services were “under new management”.

“Jeanette Richards will lead our improvement in how we protect vulnerable children – there can be no higher priority than keeping children safe,” he said. “She will also support our social workers – theirs is a tough job and we will support them to reduce their caseloads.

“Linda Clegg, who is an independent expert in children’s services, is chairing our improvement board and she is providing us with challenge and support,” Little added.

“We know we have a great deal of work to get [back to services being ‘good’],” he said. “We will provide the support our frontline social workers need as they work together with families, schools, health services, police and the voluntary sector to keep children safe and to support them achieve their potential in life.”

6 Responses to ‘Turmoil, instability and drift’ driven by senior staff turnover sees Bury children’s services rated ‘inadequate’

  1. Anon December 20, 2021 at 6:42 pm #

    Support to reduce caseloads like it’s the social workers fault they have high case loads. Maybe don’t give high case loads in the first instance then support could be offered in more meaningful places.

  2. The Hulk December 20, 2021 at 10:57 pm #

    I feel for the front line staff in Bury No doubt the are faced with an impossible task with little or no resources, high case loads with little supervision!

    We all know what to do – it is not to bring in consultants, paying them exceptional amounts, but to invest in staff, community resources and sufficiency plan.

  3. Margaret Wilson December 23, 2021 at 7:08 pm #

    Ofsted doesn’t seem to recognise the impact that the global pandemic has had on children’s services. They expect the same pre pandemic standards. Pandemic, what pandemic?

    • Lorraine January 9, 2022 at 7:56 am #

      There is a crisis in Social Work which has evident for many years. The profession of social work is not as valued as say teacher, doctors, the police for example..In almost all local authorities the caseload are inhumanly too high, little of to poor supervision, there is a culture of bullying of social workers by senior and higher management that is rife it is well documented but swept under the carpet for years and years. There is a culture of blame always directed towards social workers with little respect shown to them. Or the work the do. Years of hard labour, over working, longer hours even working weekens, is not remember, but what is, is the poor worker when a child dies, and there is no one in support of the worker who is left by themselves carrying the burden of blame. Senior manager resent competence social who challenge what they view to be wrong, as it shows up their poor practice, social worker are not heard or felt listened to. There is no decent governing body which come out in support of social workers to really discuss with them about what the real issues are in order to work towards resolutions as it would expose a deep level of incompetence of higher management recruiting their friends into position they are not qualified for, not worthy of or hiding in after being sacked, left under a cloud from a past position and so the cycle of bullying and corruption starts again. Most of LA senior managers are not qualified to lead, there is little by way of caring left in this so called caring professional as it is a broken system trying to be fixed by.people who are not qualified to fix it and who are not living in the real world.. wake up people ask the real people – the social workers what the real issues are that has for years created this profession of social work to be in such a crisis

      • frustrated January 11, 2022 at 12:57 pm #

        well said Lorraine

  4. Julia January 11, 2022 at 7:50 pm #

    I agree there is a crisis in social work however in this instance this is being used as an excuse to justify poor service. I have witnessed first hand the failings within Bury Social Services from Leadership downwards. There are social workers who fail to complete the basic tasks i.e complete assessments undertake thorough safeguarding investigations, obtain information from relevant organisations i.e. health, fail to interview relevant parties i.e. victims instead of perpetrators. I have evidenced social workers failing to visit family members then write reports claiming to have seen them or when they have seen them not included their views. These workers are not questioned, challenged or reprimanded it is only when a child dies then the LA decides to hold a ‘Serious Case Review’. The Leadership Team have been well aware of the issues for years however chose to ignore it. Yes this work is pressuring/stressful and there are a lack of resources however this does not excuse social workers from undertaking their basic roles and having integrity within their profession which gives all social workers a bad reputation