Social workers at Bradford council felt uninvolved and “done to” in its efforts to improve since an inadequate rating in 2018, the authority’s government-appointed commissioner has said.
In a report, which recommended the council lose control of its children’s services after failing to improve swiftly enough, commissioner Steve Walker said some experienced practitioners felt performance standards introduced by senior managers undermined their professional autonomy.
Walker reported that high staff turnover had been a “major impediment” to improvement, with the council’s use of agency workers having more than quadrupled since the 2018 inspection. Meanwhile, new staff reported their inductions were poor.
The Department for Education published Walker’s report this week, two weeks after education secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced Bradford’s children’s services would be outsourced to an independent trust on the back of the commissioner’s recommendations – a move the council has agreed to.
Staff felt ’done to’ instead of ‘worked with’
Social workers told Walker that they had felt uninvolved in Bradford’s decisions to improve children’s services since the inadequate rating, reporting a “culture of ‘doing to’ rather than ‘working with’”.
Staff said some of the changes “did not make sense” and limited their ability to “exercise their professional judgement”.
For example, the leadership team introduced performance standards that, in many cases, exceeded regulatory requirements. Though practitioners welcomed the standards for setting clear expectations of them, they meant social workers were undertaking visits more frequently than necessary, such as visiting looked after children every four weeks and holding a care planning meetings every six weeks.
“This placed practitioners under increased pressure and resulted in a focus on process rather than practice which impacted on the quality of assessment and on recruitment and retention,” said Walker. “Some experienced practitioners that I spoke to were clear that it undermined their professional autonomy and ability to make decisions based on the needs and circumstances of individual children.”
Some social workers told Walker they were unclear what Bradford’s practice model was, while newer staff felt their induction into the service had been poor.
‘Environment of constant change’
Many staff reported working in “an environment of constant change” with many changes in leadership and management since 2018.
Following the inadequate judgment, the council recruited a new leadership team, led by Mark Douglas as director, but this was not in place until March 2020, Walker reported. Douglas resigned in October 2021 and then a new interim leadership team was installed under Marium Haque as interim director.
Walker said the new leadership team appeared to be working well together and had taken action to simplify the council’s improvement plan.
But he added: “[This] means that three years after the inspection Bradford children’s services does not have a permanent senior leadership team in place. Whilst some of these changes have not been in the control of the local authority it is unsettling for staff and impacts on the ability of children’s services to build effective working relationships with partners.”
Walker also pointed out that 2020-21 leadership team – though experienced and committed – were all in their first posts at such a senior level and managing under “extremely challenging circumstances”.
‘Lack of depth of experience’
This “lack of depth of experience” resulted in “a focus on excellence which got in the way of achieving ‘good enough’” – of which the performance standards were an example.
Walker also said that “tensions” between children’s services and the council’s corporate centre were a “key factor” hampering Bradford’s improvement.
“The leader and chief executive took prompt action to secure the resources required by children’s services to support improvement after inspection and have continued to provide additional investment where needed,” he said.
“However, the corporate centre did not fully understand the pressures on managers in children’s services and had insufficient knowledge of the detail of practice and processes to know how best to provide the support required.”
An example of this was in relation to the service’s drive to recruit more social workers, on improved terms and conditions, which required the agreement of the centre. At a time of significant turnover, the corporate centre struggled to keep track of post numbers and vacancies, with team managers put under “significant strain” to carry out administrative tasks to get new social workers on board.
Unstable workforce impeded improvements
Walker said the lack of workforce stability was also a “major impediment” to improvement.
The council has invested in hiring more staff in recent years, with the proportion of its budget spent on children’s services increasing by 50% since 2015-16.
But the increase has been in agency rather than permanent staff, with the former more than quadrupling to 216.6 from August 2018 to November 2021 and the latter decreasing slightly to 276 in this time.
Average caseloads have remained flat since August 2019, since when data on this measure has been collected, despite an increase in overall staffing. This is likely due to a 59% increase in the total number of open children’s cases in Bradford, to 6,150, since the inspection in 2018.
Walker said the increased investment in children’s services was “clearly unsustainable” and said the council has estimated that recruiting a “full establishment” of in-house social workers would save at least £5m each year in lower agency costs.
“The pandemic has impacted on the authority’s ability to drive some changes, for example recruitment,” Walker said. “However, even taking the pandemic into account, the pace of progress has been too slow.
“Many of the key challenges identified in the 2018 inspection remain, particularly in relation to workforce stability and the quality of social work practice. After three years the local authority has been unable to create a context in which good social care practice can take place.”
Commissioner did not recommend trust model
Despite Bradford and the DfE agreeing to outsource its services to a trust, Walker’s report shows he recommended an unprecedented alternative delivery model. Under this, the DfE would appoint an executive commissioner to direct and support improvement and manage children’s services, which would remain with the council.
He said the advantage of this approach was that it could be set up quickly, in the context of Bradford already being three years on from its inadequate judgement. A “key risk” of the trust model was that it would likely take one to two years to set up, potentially leading to progress stalling and staff leaving due to the uncertainty.
The DfE said it had chosen the trust model as it felt an executive commissioner would have limited ability to effect change and the council supported the creation of a trust.
In a revised statutory direction to Bradford, the DfE said the transition to the trust should be “completed within a reasonable timeframe”. This also confirmed Walker would continue as commissioner to oversee the establishment of the trust, provide support and direction to the council during the transition and report regularly to the DfE on Bradford’s progress.
‘Efforts to improve’
Bradford leader Susan Hinchcliffe thanked Walker for his report, which she said “shows the efforts to which we have already gone to improve children’s services”.
“The report highlights many strengths that the commissioner has seen, including the commitment of staff, extra resources, strong political and leadership support and strong safeguarding arrangements,” she said.
“But it also highlights the challenges we still face – not least of which is recruiting a stable workforce and developing stronger partnerships. Overcoming these challenges so we can provide better outcomes for children and families and support our front-line staff is now our key focus.
“We are working closely with the government to deliver the recommendations within the report and to set up a children’s company in Bradford that will provide the extra impetus to deliver the improvements we need.”
Star case added to national review
Meanwhile, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel has published updated terms of reference for its national review into learning from the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case, to also include learnings from the murder of 16-month-old Star Hobson in Bradford in 2020.
The review, led by panel chair Annie Hudson and due to be published by the end of May, now aims to:
- establish what happened to Star during her life and, in building that picture, explore agency involvement with all those charged with caring for her.
- evaluate how agencies acted to safeguard Star and what factors enabled or limited their ability to protect her.