Inspectors downgrade council after finding ‘significant variation’ in quality of social work

Deficits in direct work, assessments, court evidence and supervision see York moved down to ‘requires improvement’, while West Berkshire remains ‘good’

Credit: Peter Austin/Adobe Stock

A “significant variation” in the quality of social work has led inspectors to downgrade York council to ‘requires improvement’.

The authority lost its good rating – earned in 2016 – after inspectors found deficits in the quality of assessments, direct work, evidence to court and supervision, amid rising turnover of social workers, in a full inspection in March.

Inspectors said the authority had tried to reverse a decline in practice identified in a 2019 focused visit covering children in need and child protection services. But while the vast majority of teams had shown improvements, Ofsted said the “pace of change [had] been too slow”, in a report published this week.

Children left in neglectful situations

Inspectors said some children remained in neglectful situations for too long, as a result of assessments that did not analyse the effects of cumulative harm and lead to over-optimism about families’ progress.

More generally, some assessments of children in need of help and protection lacked evaluation, leading to plans that did not identify their needs or the risks they faced appropriately.

Direct work with children in need was also of variable quality, with insufficient effort made to communicate with children with additional communication needs, meaning plans were not sufficiently informed by their voice.

Ofsted said social workers’ analysis of information in return home interviews for children who had gone missing was “weak”, with each incident considered separately, and missed opportunities to explore the reasons why they went missing.

This echoed findings from a 2018 joint targeted area inspection of York on the multi-agency response to child sexual abuse, underlining Ofsted’s more general view that areas for improvement had not been fully addressed.

Inspectors said that while applications to court were generally appropriate and timely, social workers’ evidence was not consistently of high quality, leading to delays in securing permanence for some children.

Children in care were seen regularly by their social workers – and alone where appropriate – but not all benefited from direct work or were helped to understand their life histories.

While most records were written to the child, which would help them understand the rationale for decisions should they access them in future, others would not because they lacked a clear sense of the child’s experiences and views.

Ofsted said most looked-after children were in stable homes that met their needs. However, for a small number of children under 16  in unregistered children’s homes, a lack of timely care planning. had led to uncertainty about their living arrangements, a negative impact on their emotional wellbeing and further unregistered placement moves.

Better supervision needed

Ofsted linked the inconsistencies in practice to the council’s failure to effectively embed its systemic practice model, which was introduced in 2018 to address a decline in the quality of social work.

In an echo of the findings of the 2019 focused visit, the inspectorate said social workers needed to be better supervised to more effectively identify drift and delay for children and address practice shortfalls.

While caseloads were manageable, increasing turnover had led to some children experiencing a number of changes of social worker, something that had also left some workers feeling unsettled

Government figures show York’s turnover rate for children’s social workers leapt from 13.2% to 19.7%, from 2020-21, as its vacancy rate also rose, from 11.6% to 16.1%. And while most social workers were positive about working for York, some were unable to access learning opportunities because of service pressures, stifling their development.

Council: ‘Improvement work will continue’

Ian Cuthbertson, executive member for children, young people and education at York council, said he was pleased Ofsted noted some improvements since 2019, but said the authority recognised that consistency of practice and ensuring children and young people influenced decision making needed to improve.

“Work to address these challenges has been under way for some time and will continue, now we have completed the permanent appointments of chief officers within children’s services,” he said.

“I would like to thank our children’s social workers, social care staff, their managers and partners across the city, who continue to do such amazing work in what continues to be a challenging time for children’s social care services across the country.”

West Berkshire remains ‘good’

Ofsted also inspected West Berkshire in March, rating the authority as good across the board, an improvement on its last full inspection five years ago, when it was ‘good’ overall but ‘requires improvement’ for children in need of help and protection.

This improvement had been secured by investment in an early response hub, which had led to “extensive, timely and creative early help”, and more funding for social workers in family safeguarding teams, said inspectors.

Ofsted praised the quality of practice at the front door, which meant children and families were referred to the right agency at the right time. “Strong pre-proceedings work” ensured parents knew what was expected of them, meaning some families safely exited this stage, and Ofsted also found that Cafcass and family judges praised the quality of court practice.

In relation to children in care, the inspectorate highlighted effective practice with those at risk of harm, good support for unaccompanied children and the priority given to enabling children to live with wider family networks.

Ofsted also said senior leaders fostered social workers’ professional development, managers were “hands-on and present” and an experienced workforce, with strong relationships between staff, enabled healthy challenge.

However, inspectors said that some social workers faced high workloads, the quality of case recording needed to improve and some assessments of children in need lacked an explicit exploration of their ethnicity and culture.

Dominic Boeck, West Berkshire’s executive member for education, children and young people, said: “This report again shows how committed everyone at West Berkshire Council is to improving the lives of all of our children, no matter the challenges they may face. We’ve worked hard to maintain the rating we were given in our last inspection and we will look for ways to do even better.”

More from Community Care

2 Responses to Inspectors downgrade council after finding ‘significant variation’ in quality of social work

  1. Tom J May 5, 2022 at 2:59 pm #

    The yo-yo of numerous Local Authorities going from Outstanding to Good to Requires Improvement to Failing must point to the wider ineffectiveness of the Ofsted system?

  2. Char May 7, 2022 at 12:05 pm #

    What causes the variation of practice quality? Leadership and management oversight, not Oftsed. Managers are responsible for overseeing children’s experiences and should know what Neglect looks like and how to respond. The decision to leave children in neglectful situations must sit with the social worker and manager. The quality assurance process should pick this up and the DCS and ADs as practice leads are accountable.

    Who oversees the assessments and plan? Managers, who is responsible for ensuring they are skilled up, the senior leaders.

    Who is responsible for direct work? The social worker with oversight on quality and analysis by Managers.

    I could go on. Leadership is the issue here!! NOT OFSTED!!!