“Significant” difficulties recruiting social workers are undermining practice and thwarting improvements at an ‘inadequate’ local authority, Ofsted has found.
In a since rating the authority as inadequate in 2019 , inspectors found its recruitment problems had negatively affected the services its duty teams offered to children.
Inspectors reported that some children were being left in situations of unknown risk with “too many” experiencing “unnecessary drift and delay” in having their needs assessed, in a report issued last week.
This followed a similarly critical Ofsted visit in November, which found children in the assessment service endured too many changes of social workers and some faced delays in having their needs met because of failings in how practitioners and managers prioritised tasks.
Since its inadequate rating, St Helens has been subject to a Department for Education improvement notice, which means that it must work with a DfE-appointed improvement adviser.
Recruitment problems having ‘detrimental impact’
In its latest visit, Ofsted found the council faced “significant recruitment problems throughout all areas of children’s services”, which it said was having “a detrimental impact on the quality of service that children requiring help and support receive”.
According to DfE figures, St Helens’ staff turnover rate reduced significantly from 2019 to 2020 (from 27.5% to 8.4%) but then rose back to 25.6% in 2021.
Its vacancy rate (19.6%) and average caseloads (18.3) were also both higher in 2021 than the previous year though below 2019 levels, while sickness absence rates almost doubled from 2020-21, from 2.8% to 5.3%.
Ofsted found that some social workers’ caseloads “far exceeded” the council’s target levels with duty team practitioners having to actively work on cases while waiting for them to be transferred to other teams.
It said this was having a significant impact on social workers’ ability to robustly assess children’s needs in a timeframe that meets their needs, and leading to some not receiving interventions to reduce risks to them.
Social workers told inspectors that they struggled to build effective relationships with children due to their time being taken up by the demands of their caseloads.
Ofsted found that social workers recorded children’s views but they were often “simply ‘likes and dislikes’” so did not properly show what life was like for them and therefore did not inform decision-making.
Social workers not ‘regularly supervised’
Inspectors said that management oversight of practice at the front door was “variable”. “Regular and well recorded” supervision of multi-agency safeguarding hub staff led to them being given clear direction, but duty social workers did not always receive regular supervision, and there was no evidence of challenge from the team manager when there was drift and delay for the child.
Ofsted praised the council’s focus on improving the effectiveness of its practice audits, which it said meant leaders were now “more aware of the weaker areas of social work practice”.
But it said this should have come sooner after Ofsted highlighted problems in the full inspection in 2019.
“As a result, this visit demonstrates that there has been a lack of rigour and pace to improve social work practice in the duty teams and, ultimately, reduce risk for children more quickly to improve their lives,” the inspectorate said.
Struggles implementing Signs of Safety
Ofsted also highlighted an unstable workforce and ineffective management oversight at its previous monitoring visit to St Helens in November 2021, which focused on children in need and those subject to a child protection plan
It said the council had invested in recruitment and retention of social workers and team managers but that it was “too soon to see any impact for children”.
Inspectors said a renewed quality assurance framework had failed to improve leaders’ understanding of children’s circumstances or developments in the quality of social work.
They also identified problems in the authority’s recent implementation of the Signs of Safety practice model. This had “had a significant impact on some social workers’ ability to carry out required tasks and accurately reflect the work that they are doing with children and families”.
“For too many children, there is a lack of timely progress and work completed to address their needs,” Ofsted said.
Director: ‘We are working on recruitment’
Following the November monitoring report, the council produced a revised improvement plan, which includes actions to reduce caseloads, improve staff support, learning and development, enhance leaders’ engagement with practitioners and revise the implementation of Signs of Safety.
Jim Leivers, director of children’s services at St Helens, said he was pleased the inspectors noted a “culture of trust and challenge” between the council and its safeguarding partners in the latest report but said the authority was focused on improving in the areas Ofsted outlined.
“We know that one of our key areas of improvement is the recruitment and retention of social workers, although it is important to recognise, as the inspectors do, that this is not a unique issue for St Helens but one which almost every local authority in the North West, and indeed nationally, face.
“We have a plan in place to help drive that programme of recruitment alongside providing an environment where social workers feel they are well supported and given the right tools to provide high quality services to our residents.”
‘Disappointing’ pace of improvement – DfE
The DfE it said it was discussing with the council how to quicken its improvements.
“It is disappointing to see there has been a slow pace of improvement in St Helens, and we are in discussion with the council about how to accelerate its improvement plans,” said a DfE spokesperson.
“We have appointed an improvement adviser to support and challenge the council, and will monitor progress in the months ahead. The department will not hesitate to take further action if required.”