Council’s ‘unacceptable’ caseloads damaging quality of social work with families, Ofsted warns

Inspectorate says recruitment efforts in Cambridgeshire have failed to reduce workloads for children’s practitioners, with Covid's impact also hindering the adoption of a new practice model

Image of stack of files (credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)
(credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)

Ofsted has said social workers at Cambridgeshire’s children’s services are holding “unacceptable” high caseloads, preventing the authority from making improvements.

At a visit to the council last month, the inspectorate found the council’s difficulty recruiting practitioners had restricted progress since it was rated requires improvement at a last full inspection in 2019.

Inspectors reported that social workers’ continuing high caseloads meant they and managers focused on the most urgent work to secure children’s safety and lacked sufficient capacity for follow-up work needed to sustain change within families.

The council said in response that it was addressing these issues through a new strategy to retain and develop staff and a refreshed recruitment campaign.

Ofsted’s report followed the publication last week of a child safeguarding practice review into the murder of a 12-week-old baby in 2019, which criticised the council’s delay in completing an assessment of the child in the lead up to his death.

High caseloads have persisted

Ofsted’s latest visit to the council, which focused on its services for children in need and those subject to a protection plan, found many social workers were struggling with “excessive workloads”, holding many cases involving child protection or complex child in need work.

“This is unacceptable, as it limits the time workers have available to get to know children and families, and to work with them to address the problems they face,” the inspectorate’s report said.

“Plans to recruit more social workers have not been successful in reducing caseloads across the service.”

According to figures from the Department for Education, practitioners’ caseloads almost doubled year-on-year from 9.7 in 2020 to 17.7 in 2021, the highest for at least five years.

Its vacancy (24.6%) and staff turnover rates (21.9%) were also the highest they had been for at least five years, while its use of agency workers (13%) was just below a 2019 peak.

Council told to improve

As a result of staff shortages, Ofsted found the quality and timeliness of services remained “less than good for too many children” in need of support.

“In a small number of child in need cases, there are long delays between assessment of need and a social worker being allocated to provide longer-term intervention,” it said.

“Circumstances for some children deteriorate in this time, which may be avoidable with more timely allocation.”

Ofsted told the council to improve social worker capacity to undertake “effective direct work” with children and their families, as well as:

  • The timeliness of allocation of social worker in child in need cases, to meet children’s and families’ needs.
  • The time available to ensure high-quality reflective supervision and decision-making for children.
  • Managers’ and social workers’ understanding of the risks of sexual abuse.
  • Social workers’ capacity to attend relevant training, including induction into the practice model.

Managers aware of recruitment challenge

Despite the report’s criticism, inspectors said Cambridgeshire children’s services managers were aware of the high caseloads held by social workers and had prevented children being left at risk by ensuring staff were regularly supervised.

Ofsted said children’s practitioners held types of cases that were appropriate to their role, while managers made key decisions about children’s cases, keeping them under review and responding if circumstances changed.

The report noted that social workers in adolescent teams, focused on children at risk of entering care, had “much lower” caseloads and were therefore able to build effective relationships with young people and their families.

Bryony Goodliffe, chair of the council’s children and young people committee, said: “Inspectors rightly highlighted a few areas for improvement – areas which had already been identified and are in the process of being addressed.”

Social workers given extensive training since child’s murder

Last week’s safeguarding practice review, into the murder of Teddie Mitchell by his mother’s partner in 2019, called on the council to provide assurances that children “are both seen, and spoken to, within the expected protocol and timescales of a child and family assessment”.

It highlighted the fact that a social worker saw Teddie, referred to as ‘Stephen’ in the report, and his half-siblings alone six weeks after their assessment began, after the boy’s mother refused to allow them to see the children earlier without her present.

A spokesperson for the council described Teddie’s death as “tragic and distressing” and extended sympathies to his family and wider community.

“While we offered support and assistance to ‘Stephen’s’ family for what we believed their needs to be at the time, we regret that not all the warning signs were seen that might have led to earlier statutory involvement.”

The council said social workers had been given extensive training since the event in the importance of gathering information about family members, including understanding those that extend beyond the biological family members and the relevance of their role to children in that context.

“Our social workers support many children, young people and their families, often in challenging circumstances,” it said.

“The lessons learned from Stephen’s tragic death and the recommendations from the review will be used to help us better protect our children.”


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