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”.
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.