‘Inadequate’ council confident of improved rating after Ofsted praises reduced reliance on agency staff

Inspectorate’s latest visit finds “discernible progress” at Stoke since damning 2019 inspection through ‘tenacious’ recruitment of social workers, better analysis of risk and improved quality assurance

Night skyline image of Stoke-on-Trent (credit: alan1951 / Adobe Stock)
Stoke-on-Trent (credit: alan1951 / Adobe Stock)

Stoke-on-Trent council is confident of improving on its inadequate rating after Ofsted hailed its “tenacious” recruitment of social workers and “discernible progress” since its damning 2019 inspection.

In a recent visit focused on the council’s front door, inspectors praised its recruitment of 77 social workers since March 2021, cutting its number of vacancies and use of agency staff by over 50%. Inspectors also highlighted social workers’ better understanding of risks to children and improvements in quality assurance – both of which were heavily criticised at the 2019 inspection.

In an interview with Community Care, cabinet member for children and young people Dave Evans said he was confident that the authority would receive a better rating at its next full inspection..

Meanwhile, Stoke has appointed Lisa Lyons as its permanent director of children’s services from the end of March, taking over from interim director Niki Clemo, who joined last year.

‘Catastrophic’ inadequate inspection

The council faced losing control of its children’s services after the 2019 inspection found children were not being protected and leaders did not understand the extent of the failings.

The Department for Education (DfE) appointed Eleanor Brazil as commissioner to work with Stoke but she concluded that turning its services over to an alternative provider would be too disruptive.

Instead, at her recommendation, Stoke entered a partnership with outstanding-rated Leeds council while remaining under DfE intervention, overseen by current commissioner Paul Moffat.

Ofsted’s latest visit, in December, was the fifth since the 2019 inspection and the second consecutive one to show progress.

Evans described Stoke’s ‘inadequate’ inspection from 2019 as “catastrophic in so many ways” but said much has changed since then, such as a new leadership team, including himself.

He said social workers had “stepped up” since then and that the service was now “so different in terms of the way staff feel” and in how they made decisions for children.

Ofsted said that, compared to the previous inspection, social workers better understood risks to children as they gave “greater consideration to the impact of family histories on current concerns”.

“Social workers analyse risks and needs for children effectively and, in most cases, apply the right level of threshold,” it said.

Inspectors said the children’s services’ leaders had been “tenacious in the recruitment and retention” of staff, leading to children having fewer changes of social worker and therefore developing “more meaningful relations”.

Evans said the council had looked at different ways of recruiting, including from other countries “with similar legal frameworks” such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia.

He said the council helped new recruits to find somewhere to live in the city, while they buddied up with current social workers to help them settle in at work.

Stoke has also brought former practitioners back into the service, some of whom were temporarily registered with Social Work England, during the coronavirus pandemic, and hired some former agency workers on a permanent basis.

“We have had a high percentage of vacancies in the past, and where we have had really good agency workers we have worked to make them feel at home so that they wanted to stay,” said Evans.

Evans said he was “very confident” that when Ofsted next inspected the council it would see “a much-improved service” and that Moffat would not recommend that the authority’s services were taken from its control.

Ofsted is due to visit Stoke again in the spring.

New DCS attracted by council’s ‘team spirit’

Lyons was most recently interim DCS at Sefton council, working under a DfE improvement notice for its special educational needs and disabilities services. She previously led children’s services in Wokingham and Slough.

She said there was “a real sense of team spirit” that set Stoke apart from other authorities, and that she was  “very much looking forward to working with councillors, staff and our partners building on the good work that’s already well underway”.

 Council hires ‘life coach’ to support social workers

Stoke was one of several authorities whose front door services Ofsted assessed in late 2021.

Ofsted praised Warrington’s “effective and well-coordinated” arrangements in a visit in December, saying children in need of help and protection were promptly identified and received appropriate support. When social work assessments were required, these were “well-written, timely and with a clear evaluation of strengths and risks”.

But it said the council, rated good in 2019, needed to better capture the voice of the child in case records, so that their wishes and feelings were clearly expressed and informed future planning.

It said the authority should improve how it recorded decisions at child protection conferences, so that the reasons behind its actions were clear.

Inspectors also found caseloads were too high in some teams and turnover rates meant some children faced too many changes of social worker, though leaders were acting on this.

Director of children’s social care Amanda Amesbury said Warrington had secured funding to recruit a clinical psychologist ‘life coach’ to help social workers cope with the demands of their “challenging, complex work environment”.

“We value our staff and they work tirelessly to provide the highest possible quality of care for our most vulnerable children and families, and I’m so pleased that this work is recognised by Ofsted,” she said.

Early help preventing escalating need

Ofsted also praised front door services at Cheshire West and Chester council, which it said had strengthened since a ‘goo rating in 2019.

It found timely responses to referrals, coupled with thorough information gathering and analysis, while children who needed statutory services received timely, thorough assessments from social workers who sensitively captured their views.

Children and families benefited from access to comprehensive early help provision, which prevented needs escalating to a statutory level, and a strong and well-coordinated response to domestic abuse.

Inspectors said senior leaders had created a culture of learning and development and that Warrington’s “comprehensive workforce development strategy” had helped create a stable and skilled staff team.

But Ofsted found safety plans were not always on children’s records following a section 47 enquiry, while supervision records were variable in quality and lacked timescales for actions. Inspectors urged improvements in both areas, along with quality assurance arrangements, to ensure that actions were completed, and children’s and parents’ feedback sought to inform practice.

Robert Cernik, cabinet member for children and families, said he was “delighted that our staff have been recognised by inspectors” and that Ofsted had highlighted its workforce strategy, which “helps us create a great team”.

“I would like to thank staff and the service for their hard work and dedication throughout the pandemic to continuously find new ways to support children and families and strive for the best for them,” he said.

Practitioners feel supported

Meanwhile, Ofsted praised Bristol council’s “continuously improving” front door practice, which it said “ensures that children receive the right services at the right time”.

It said the response of social workers, who reported feeling “safe and supported”, was effective in identifying and assessing needs and risks and agreeing next steps.

Inspectors said leaders had “systematically strengthened” practice and decision making at the front door despite the additional pressures of Covid-19.

But for a few children, they said, the rationale for obtaining information from other agencies was “not always clearly recorded” and it was “not always apparent” if consent has been obtained from families.

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