A council criticised by inspectors for high caseloads has improved to a good Ofsted rating after hiring more social workers to reduce workloads.
Warwickshire council joined Newcastle in improving one grade from the requires improvement ratings both received in 2017, while leaders at Sutton council were praised by inspectors as it retained its good rating, Ofsted revealed this week.
At a full inspection in 2017, the inspectorate found high caseloads at Warwickshire were having a negative impact on practice with looked-after children, were not manageable for newly qualified staff and needed to be cut. In a focused visit the following year, covering children in need of help and protection, Ofsted found caseloads were still too high, despite progress made in reducing them.
But at its latest inspection, carried out in late 2021, the inspectorate said workloads had reduced despite increased demand, in part through increasing social worker numbers, and that was resulting in children receiving good services.
The council’s full-time equivalent of social workers rose from 345 to 368 between 2017 and 2020, during which time average caseloads fell from 19.5 to 17, show the latest Department for Education workforce statistics. A Warwickshire spokesperson said it had gone further since 2020, recruiting additional permanent practitioners in response to Covid-19, including 16 “lead practitioner social workers” last year, a post created to attract more experienced staff to the county.
Direct work praised
In the latest report, inspectors said Warwickshire’s social workers listened carefully to children and praised the quality of direct work by practitioners, which ensured that children’s voices, wishes and feelings were heard.
They said practitioners built trusting relationships with families, giving parents confidence to develop their parenting skills, while most children in care were in long-term homes and made good progress.
Inspectors also praised senior leaders for knowing their organisation well, addressing gaps in provision and implementing an ethos that valued – and had high aspirations for – children and families.
Ofsted said social workers had “continued to support vulnerable children well” despite the challenges of Covid-19, for which it praised leaders for being “tenacious” in securing resources.
But inspectors found a small number of cases in which strategy discussions were not held when children were at risk of significant harm, due to a focus on working with the parent. Ofsted said this meant the council needed to improve its application of thresholds at the front door.
Ofsted also found cases of children being in placements with connected carers who had not been approved, for whom Warwickshire needed to improve oversight and decision-making.
It also said the council needed to improve “variable” levels of practice with disabled children to achieve a consistently high quality.
Jeff Morgan, Warwickshire’s portfolio holder for children’s services, said he was “so proud” of the rating and Ofsted’s recognition of the authority’s focus on long-term improvements since 2017 and through the pandemic.
“I’d like to pay tribute to our partners and everyone in our children’s services, who all work with passion and purpose every day to improve the lives of children in Warwickshire,” he added.
“We know the work doesn’t stop here though. We are continuing to improve our children’s services to achieve excellence and we welcome the recommendations Ofsted have made to further strengthen our ambition of making Warwickshire a child friendly county.”
Practice good for majority of children
At Newcastle, inspectors found the quality of practice was good in most cases, with a stable and permanent workforce enabling children to build trusting relationships with their social worker.
Ofsted said that by placing social workers in schools – for which Newcastle is one of several government-funded pilots – the city was identifying children’s needs early and preventing some escalating to children’s social care.
For children in need of help and protection, inspectors said most assessments were thorough – with the child’s voice evident – and that social workers advocated for children when needed to ensure that they got the services they required.
Assessments were also generally of good quality for children subject to care proceedings, while most children in care were living locally in foster care thanks to a dedicated focus on bringing back those in out-of-area placements.
However, Ofsted found a small minority of children suffering long-term neglect or domestic abuse had not been referred quickly enough for pre-proceedings under the public law outline (PLO) following repeated child in need or protection plans.
It said the council needed to improve its response to these children as well as its pathway plans for children aged 16 and 17, which were often brief, insufficiently owned by the young person and not consistently driving better outcomes.
Ofsted also found that independent reviewing officers (IROs) had a combined caseload of child protection, children in care and foster carer reviews, reducing their capacity to provide effective challenge and ensure plans were child focused. It said the council needed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of IROs and child protection conference chairs
Director of children’s services Judith Hay said: “We are very pleased with the outcome of the recent Ofsted inspection which reflects the hard work our teams and partners have made to improve the lives of children and families across the city.
“We have big ambitions to improve further and key to this is engaging with the children of Newcastle via a number of initiatives to ensure their views are heard and can be used to shape future developments to services.”
‘Highly impressive and aspirational’ leadership
At Sutton, leadership was rated outstanding as the London council received a second successive ‘good’ inspection.
Ofsted praised “highly impressive and aspirational leaders” for their passion to “get it right” for children, “excellent” understanding of services and for developing “a strong culture of continuous learning and support to staff”.
Inspectors highlighted their efforts to recruit and retain social workers, including through enabling putting staff through social work apprenticeships, effectively supporting newly qualified staff, and successfully hiring from overseas. Some practitioners recruited from Zimbabwe had since been promoted to become team managers.
“Caseloads are manageable, enabling an environment where social workers across the breadth of children’s social care have the time to listen to children, to consider their unique and diverse needs and to take action to help and safeguard them from harm,” the report added.
But Ofsted said the council needed to improve support for care leavers, who faced too many changes of personal adviser and, for whom, transition planning did not start early enough. It also called for improvements when children go missing, not all of whom are offered a timely return home interview. Inspectors described as a “missed opportunity” to assess risks and inform safety planning.
Marian James, chair of people committee at Sutton council, said: “This report is a great success for the council. Putting our children and young people first and setting them up to fulfil their potential is a clear corporate priority.
“This report highlights the hard work, innovation and dedication of staff and partners to help provide effective and forward-thinking services for children and young people.
“It is also positive to see that areas for improvement noted in the report are being taken forward by services within the council.”