An “unstinting focus on improvements” by managers and sustained investment in hiring more social workers has led to a council being rated good by Ofsted, three years after an inadequate rating.
The inspectorate rated the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families at Wakefield council as outstanding, and said challenges caused by Covid-19 had not “tempered the drive and determination to improve services”.
Following a visit in November last year, inspectors said social workers were skilled at communicating with professionals and families to gather more information and explore solutions for children in the area.
Social workers building good relationships
The report said the council’s investment in its workforce had enabled social workers to develop stronger relationships with children in need of help and protection as well as those in care.
It said social workers visited children regularly to ensure that their needs were effectively considered and would remain involved until it was established that their involvement was no longer required.
Inspectors praised the out-of-hours social work team for offering children and families appropriate support and intervention.
“Children are seen regularly by social workers who are child focused, who work hard to build trusting relationships and engage children through creative direct work,” the report said.
“Face-to-face visiting has been maintained throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and most visits are purposeful and are clearly recorded.”
Falling use of agency staff and caseloads
Wakefield’s previous inspection in 2018 found high turnover and sickness absence of social workers, who were “not supported sufficiently or challenged by managers”.
The council’s staff turnover rate fell in recent years from 16.4% in 2018 to 15.1% in 2020, according to Department for Education figures, while its absence rate fell from 9.5% to 4% in that time.
Wakefield’s agency worker rate also fell from 28.7% to 21.8% from 2018 to 2020, in which time average caseloads fell from 21.9 to 14.6.
The new report credited the authority’s leadership team, and managers at all levels, with driving the “significant and sustained improvements” to social work practice “from an extremely low base”.
Drive to recruit staff
Victoria Schofield, Wakefield’s acting director of children’s services, said the council had sought to reduce caseloads and improve managers’ oversight of less experienced social workers following the 2018 ‘inadequate’ report.
She said the authority invested in hiring additional social workers and developing its own recruits from university, and that more than 90% of staff at the council were now permanently employed.
“We’ve now had significant numbers of social workers join us and stay with us who came to Wakefield from university,” she said. “The learning academy has been really important in attracting people to Wakefield and encouraging them to stay.”
Schofield said the council’s previous inadequate rating and the context of Covid-19 since 2020 had made it challenging to hire social workers but the council had focused on hiring a strong leadership team first.
“We’ve had a stable leadership team in Wakefield for over two years and in my view, people work for people, not places. So having the right leadership team in place is really important,” she said. “We’ve been very focused on our recruitment activity, on our materials and the way we get out and speak to people.”
Further improvements needed
Inspectors said Wakefield still needed to improve how it assessed and responded to risks to vulnerable care leavers.
“For a very small number of vulnerable care leavers, pathway plans are not identifying and addressing all presenting risks,” Ofsted said.
“Senior leaders were aware of this prior to the inspection and plans are in place to ensure that all care leavers receive a consistently good service.”
It also told the council to raise the quality of children’s written plans to ensure that they include the details of the interventions being provided to children and families.
But it said current written plans were “not having an adverse impact on progress for children”.
‘We will not be complacent’
Margaret Isherwood, Wakefield’s cabinet member for children and young people, said the improvements over the past three years were built on “solid and sustainable foundations”.
“The partnership working that is now in place across the district is a huge strength and I thank our partners for the key role they play in looking after our children and young people who they support,” she said.
“We will not be complacent and working together with our partners, we want to continue to sustain and even further improve the delivery of services to ensure that children’s voices are always heard and that all children are given the support they need fulfil their potential.”