Social workers urge inspection overhaul to enable more direct work

Ofsted oversight is ‘biggest driver of paperwork’, practitioners tell care review

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Ofsted inspections are the “biggest driver of paperwork”, limiting time for direct work, social workers have told the care review.

Social workers said that, while sometimes practice focused, inspections were too focused on “process, rather than the impact on the child”, said a report by the care review summarising its engagement with practitioners.

In an echo of previous care review publications, this week’s report said social workers reported having to undertake “enormous bureaucratic and administrative tasks, which undermined their ability to offer “meaningful intervention and support to families”.

‘Curb bureaucracy to enable direct work’

Social workers felt there should be a “moratorium on the trend of increasing bureaucracy that has developed over the years to enable more direct work with those children and families”.

The care review’s ‘case for change’, published last June, said many social workers were being “staggeringly misused” because of the bureaucratic, process-driven nature of frontline practice.

Subsequent reports have also highlighted the problem, with Community Care’s annual caseloads survey citing paperwork as one of the key drivers of the increasing unmanageability of children’s practitioners’ workloads.

Meanwhile, most social workers who responded to the British Association of Social Workers’ inaugural membership survey highlighted administrative demands as one of the biggest challenges they faced, prompting BASW to renew calls for more investment in business support staff to relieve this burden.

The care review said some practitioners it spoke to also called for more administrators and family support workers to be hired to provide business support, while others called for more streamlined processes and smarter uses of technology to free up their time.

Inspections ‘driving risk-averse practice’

The report said social workers wanted inspections to better showcase the best of social work practice rather than driving blame culture and generating more risk averse practice.

One practice leader quoted in the report said: “The influence Ofsted has is enormous, making practice more risk averse.”

Another social worker said inspections created a “’cover your back’ attitude in a blame culture”.

“We don’t put half of the time on what went right and increase that. We focus more on what went wrong and avoiding it next time,” said a third practitioner.

“We need to think about learning in a different way and explaining it to others in a different way. Appreciate what we do, rather than what we haven’t done.”

Practitioners also told the care review that Ofsted ratings had a “significant impact” on recruitment, the views of the courts and partner agencies in respect to the quality of social work practice.

Social workers ‘do best work with manageable caseloads’

In response to the report, Ofsted’s national director for social care, Yvette Stanley, said: “In 2018, we moved to a more proportionate inspection system focused on children’s progress and experience. We continue to strive to report on the improvements we see across the sector, while rightly expecting high standards of health, protection and care.

“We believe social workers do their best work when they have manageable caseloads, and when they feel confident and supported in their decision-making by leaders and managers who are ambitious for the children and families they serve.”

Practitioners told the care review that increasing caseloads were a “major problem”, as was the impact of complex cases and crisis situations.

While the Department for Education’s recent annual workforce figures for children and families social workers showed caseloads plateauing, Community Care’s own survey suggested an increase in both number and complexity.

High stress leading to high turnover

Social workers called for lower caseloads and work pressures to allow them more time to work effectively with families and build trusting relationships, said the care review report.

“When caseloads are above 15 in my opinion no quality work can be done with young people or their families meaning the best possible outcomes cannot be achieved,” one social worker said.

Echoing Community Care’s findings, practitioners said high turnover in the profession was a consequence of large caseloads, stress, and a lack of mental health support for social workers experiencing. They also said retention was hindered by a lack of professional development that did not involve moving into management.

Early help investment urged

In another recurring theme of the care review’s publications, the latest report said  that social workers wanted more investment in early help services.

Most social workers told the review that children’s services were underfunded generally, due to diminishing government funding for local authorities.

They called for funding to be prioritised for “the 90% of children and families who need preventative support, whilst recognising the need for higher intervention to protect the 10% at risk of harm”.

Practitioners reported a need for a clear definition of what early help was, “as over time it has become a catch-all, resulting in high referrals”.

For example, early help practitioners told the review that social workers would step cases down from child in need to early help, because social workers felt the need to continue a level of monitoring and support, “thereby muddying the purpose of early help”.

Final report

The care review report, published alongside one detailing its engagement with parents and carers, did not provide any hints at what it will recommend in its final report, due later in the spring.

However, the two reports demonstrate the key messages the review is hearing as it approaches the end of its examination of the children’s social care system in England, which started in March 2021.

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8 Responses to Social workers urge inspection overhaul to enable more direct work

  1. Harriet George April 1, 2022 at 9:00 pm #

    This has been known for decades but as with the sociology of social problems it will only be addressed when society recognised it as a problem.

  2. Simon Cardy April 1, 2022 at 9:25 pm #

    This is not a helpful or a serious piece of research from the WhatWorksCSC. It only confirms what we already know from countless other much better surveys, poll after poll, survey after survey.

    This is partly down to the choice of methodology involving a maximum of 177 participants at any one time of which 11% were non-case holders (i.e.managers), partly I suspect that partcipants were perhaps tired of being asked the same question (mirroring children’s own experience of social workers) and partly due to MacAlister’s choice of commissioning.

    I can’t imagine the researchers were unaware from the countless existing polls and from the grey literature – including those from this publication – that they did not expect to discover that one of the key barriers – in the view of social workers – to spending more time undertaking direct work – was administrative tasks and unmanageable workloads. The real research question is to go on to ask, so why do children’s social workers say what they say in these surveys year after year, decade after decade?

    The review team has undertaken a series of ‘deep dive’ visits to ten local authority areas to ‘give us important insight into how the system works on the ground’ but NOT alas not it seems a submarine exploration into the Mariana trench of bureaucracy and workloads. Not even a modicum of ‘professional curiosity’ at the very least to ‘investigate’ at some level to as to what social workers mean when they talk about ‘unmanageable’ caseloads and having ‘too much paperwork’?

    The literature is crying out for a serious contribution like this one (Baginsky, 2013) to begin to examine some of the underlying questions as to what bureaucracy we can safely leave behind and what a manageable caseload might actually look like in practice. What we don’t want is any more opinion polls masquerading as credible research.

  3. M. GONCALVES April 1, 2022 at 11:33 pm #

    It’s hopeful and refreshing at last, the issues that significantly affect social workers in conducting their vital and noble work is being talked about with transparency, honesty and dignity as it deserves in this care review report. Work is a part that most of us spend our lives with and if not ‘fit for porpuse’ very likely translates in other areas of social workers personal ives.
    Let’s now keep our eyes and hears open to hearing and learn on engagement of parents and carers and the recommendations in the final report. Trusting in it.

  4. Sue Gracey April 2, 2022 at 5:20 am #

    Local authorities are increasing rates for social workers in court , cp and cin because they can’t retain the staff. It’s a revolving door and the children and families suffer as a result. Stress levels increase in line with the case loads and social workers just leave, the case load then waits for the next miracle worker to do the same! When will there be a joint approach to stop this happening? It’s false economy and soul destroying for social workers. The best outcomes are achieved by spending more time doing direct work with the families as we really get to know them, and gain a better understanding of their needs as opposed to being governed and restricted by time . Radical changes are necessary, a tick list as opposed to form after form after form. Verbal reviews , court cases taped and stored maybe something we could look to move towards. The amount of hours that go into proceedings is unsustainable, and we never get them back. Holidays are a worry because when you return you have to double up on hours to catch up with the time you had off. I have done 12 years in safeguarding and my joints ache almost as much as my head from all the typing that we have to do. Over the past 5 days I’ve seen 5 children, how can that be justified?

  5. JD April 3, 2022 at 8:35 am #

    ..I notice no replies…That’s no surprise really is it. We’ve been talking about this and other issues for YEARS! Workers are sick of hearing it and the lack of support.

    Where are the unions/SWE to help actually help us to move forward?

    Little wonder professionals are leaving on mass. Our children and families deserve effective intervention which can improve their life chances..Soon social work as we know it will disappear and children and young person are likely to become even more vulnerable.

    I recognise my response is simplistic, unfortunately it’s a reality.

  6. Tom J April 4, 2022 at 10:12 am #

    I agree overall that the ”influence Ofsted has is enormous, making practice more risk averse”.

    Anecdotally though I do recall one good experience that I had with an Ofsted Inspector. He was bamboozled by my authority with various graphs, charts, assessments, care plans and statistics; and I found it so utterly refreshing when he said words to the effect of ”Im not so interested in this, tell me; how’s the child doing? what does a typical day look like for her? what’s gone well? what more do you think could be done to improve things?”

  7. Eddie April 4, 2022 at 3:15 pm #

    It’s not just the inspection regime that needs an overhaul, social work systems and culture too. Managerialism has produced a cohort of over zealous, even callous bullying ‘overseers’ who have no vision and even less committment to ethical working. “Do as you’re told”, budget driven practice isn’t social work. Until that changes what Simon Cardy so eloquently describes will just grind on. A profession that relies on staff churn and regards practitioners as expendable has no saving graces. We deserve much much better than the impotent posturing of BASW and the hapless flailing of SWE.

  8. Greg W April 6, 2022 at 5:47 pm #

    Leave, put your health and sanity first, you won’t regret it. Life is too short and precious. You don’t deserve to be treated this way. Enjoy your life