Improvements at ‘inadequate’ council mean no children left at risk of harm as full reinspection looms

Quality assurance 'firmly embedded' at Stoke, but 'fragile' workforce stability and agency worker churn are still affecting the consistency of social work practice, inspectors find during final monitoring visit

Night skyline image of Stoke-on-Trent (credit: alan1951 / Adobe Stock)
Stoke-on-Trent (credit: alan1951 / Adobe Stock)

Ofsted has said services for children at an inadequate-rated local authority have improved ahead of a reinspection later this year.

In a sixth and final monitoring visit to Stoke-on-Trent council last month, the inspectorate praised the quality of practice for children in need and those with child protection plans.

It found that most children and families in Stoke received services that were “appropriate to their levels of risk and needs”.

Inspectors said they did not see any children at immediate risk of harm and that senior leaders and managers had a line of sight on practice “through a firmly embedded quality assurance framework”.

Cabinet member for children and young people Dave Evans said: “I am really pleased to see Ofsted recognise the progress made in safeguarding in Stoke-on-Trent.

“This is the final monitoring visit of six, showing progress across our services. It is a testament to the work of our social workers and staff. I look forward to the full inspection later this year.”

Improvements since ‘catastrophic’ inspection

Stoke faced losing control of its children’s services after its ‘inadequate’ inspection in 2019 found children were not being protected and leaders did not understand the extent of the failings.

In a previous interview with Community Care, Evans described Stoke’s 2019 inspection as “catastrophic in so many ways”.

The Department for Education (DfE) appointed Eleanor Brazil as commissioner to work with the council but she concluded that turning its services over to an alternative provider would be too disruptive.

Instead, at her recommendation, Stoke entered a partnership with outstanding-rated Leeds council while remaining under DfE intervention, overseen by current commissioner Paul Moffat.

Ofsted’s latest visit, in March, was the sixth since the 2019 inspection and the third consecutive one to show progress.

It said in its report that children were seen regularly by social workers “who spend time and effort building relationships with them” and “use observation well to understand their attachment with parents” when working with younger children.

Inspectors found social workers understood and embraced the council’s model of relationship-based practice and provided detailed assessments for most children.

They said social workers had a clear understanding of children’s experiences and how risks or concerns affected their development.

And they said social workers received well-recorded supervision which included critical information and progress updates, alongside direction for future work.

Caseloads rising for some workers

But inspectors also noted an “inconsistency in the quality of social work practice” at the council partly due to workforce stability issues.

They praised managers for making “significant progress” in stabilising the workforce through recruiting many permanent social workers.

But they said the workforce remained fragile due to agency staff leaving the local authority and high levels of staff sickness.

“As a result, caseloads for some social workers have increased, which has had a detrimental impact on the quality of work,” it said.

“In addition, for short periods of time, some children are allocated to team managers, pending new social workers starting.

“This means that some children experience changes in social worker, preventing them from establishing positive relationships.”

The council recently appointed Lisa Lyons, formerly of Sefton council, as its director of children’s services but she had yet to begin her role at the time of the latest visit.

She will replace interim DCS Niki Clemo, who joined last year.

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