Buckinghamshire children’s services have received an upgraded ‘requires improvement’ rating, but inspectors warned that “acute and persistent” difficulties to recruit and retain social workers have prevented further progress.
Following an inspection in December, Ofsted reported that many children in Buckinghamshire, particularly those receiving services from assessment and help and protection teams, “have too many changes of social worker”, causing them to receive “fragmented and episodic” help.
The inspectorate said services for children in Buckinghamshire had improved since a second consecutive ‘inadequate’ rating in 2017, which had identified “some children being left at risk and in unsuitable circumstances for too long”.
Buckinghamshire’s new report, its first full inspection since becoming a unitary authority in 2020, did not identify any children who were at “immediate, unassessed risk of serious harm” and found “no widespread or serious failures for children”.
The council said it was proud of the progress identified in the report but accepted that further improvements were needed for it to be rated ‘good’.
In its previous inspection of Buckinghamshire’s children’s services in 2017, Ofsted had reported a “high turnover of social workers”, with some teams holding high caseloads.
Figures from the Department for Education suggest that staffing pressures may have intensified further since then in Buckinghamshire, with its vacancy rate increasing from 14.7% in 2017 to 33.3% in 2020 and the county’s use of agency workers rising from 23% to 32.1% in this time.
In the latest inspection, Ofsted said the council had “acute and persistent” difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers and frontline managers which, as well as the “depth and extent of poor social work practice dating back to the [previous] inspection in 2017”, had impeded the scale and speed of improvements in Buckinghamshire.
In 2014, Buckinghamshire had planned, following another ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating, to recruit practitioners from overseas, but the latest report said this had only now come to fruition.
Ofsted said the authority’s staffing challenges had compounded managers’ “tireless” work to ensure children were safeguarded in the face of the “unique and continuing challenges” of the Covid pandemic.
It described practitioners’ workloads in the assessment and help and protection teams as “relentless and highly demanding”, which had led to some seeking transfers to other parts of the service.
“Senior managers continue to work relentlessly to improve the quality of social work practice despite the significant challenges of staff turnover and high workloads,” the report said.
Increased complexity of referrals
Ofsted said Buckinghamshire needed to reduce the number of re-referrals and assessments that resulted in no services being provided to children and families.
It said many local authorities, including Buckinghamshire, had experienced increasing waves of referrals following children’s return to school after earlier Covid-19 lockdowns.
But it said too many children were still re-referred to the service following earlier assessment and intervention, with senior managers failing to explain any specific measures taken to reduce this.
“Many assessments are completed that lead to no subsequent social care service, consuming considerable amounts of scarce social work time,” the report said.
“Senior leaders, including the chair of the improvement board, advised inspectors of the increased complexity and seriousness of many referrals featured in the demand surge.”
More recent Ofsted reports
Direct social work ‘lacking purpose’
Ofsted said the quality of direct work with many children in Buckinghamshire “often has little purpose beyond seeing them and recording observations and conversations”.
It said frequent changes of social workers, and their “very demanding” workloads, have made it difficult to build constructive relationships with children and their families.
But inspectors said they had seen signs of improving practice with some children on child protection plans over the past six months, “which redressed previously entrenched patterns of drift and delay”.
Ofsted said support for children aged 16 and 17 years old who present as homeless needed to improve, after it found that some in Buckinghamshire “should have been promptly offered support as children in care due to their considerable vulnerabilities”. The authority urgently reviewed the circumstances of these children.
The inspectorate also said independent reviewing officers needed to more consistently record formal escalations to address “drift in care planning”, case supervision records needed to “demonstrate inquisitiveness about children’s experiences” and the corporate parenting panel needed to work more closely with children in care.
Council pledges to improve
Anita Cranmer, cabinet member for Buckinghamshire children’s services, said the council was committed to improving in the areas identified by Ofsted including “reducing the rate of re-referrals and assessments that result in a lack of services being provided for children and families in need”.
“We are also committed to improving the quality of case supervision for social workers to enable effective working with children,” she said.
“We recognise that we still need to improve our approach with social workers to maintain consistent and regular contact with our children, this will help to ensure children only need to share their story once and reduces the need for duplication.
“As part of our improvement journey, we will continue to adapt and improve the support we provide to children aged 16 and 17 years who present as homeless.
“We also understand the importance of engaging with our children in care under the corporate parenting element of the council and how encouraging more participation with our young children will help provide more relevant and effective outcomes for them.”