‘Exceptional’ direct work helps council improve to ‘outstanding’ despite staffing challenges

    ‘Skilled, experienced social workers’ making positive difference to children in Merton, finds Ofsted, despite spike in vacancies last year

    Credit: Merton council

    “Exceptional” direct work and strong leadership have helped a London council improve to ‘outstanding’, despite a spike in vacancies last year.

    Ofsted upgraded Merton from the good rating it earned in 2017 after finding “skilled, experienced” professionals were making a positive difference to children’s lives, backed by “highly aspirational” leaders who had “strengthened and built on the impressive work at the time of the previous inspection”.

    The improvement came despite government figures showing the council’s full-time equivalent social worker vacancy rate more than doubled, from 15.7% to 37%, from September 2020 to September 2021, with its agency worker rate rising from 18.2% to 33.4% over the same period. The turnover rate in the year to September 2021 was 30.6%, double the rate from 2017-18, since when it has increased year on year.

    Ofsted noted that “an increase in staff turnover means that a small number of families experience too many changes of social workers”, but highlighted leaders’ efforts to recruit social workers and keep caseloads manageable amid fast-rising child protection demand.

    Exceptional’ direct work

    In a report this week, inspectors praised the quality of direct work with both children in need of help and protection and those in and leaving care.

    Though rating the authority as good, rather than outstanding, for help and protection, Ofsted found “exceptional examples” of social workers using direct work tools to evaluate the impact of parental vulnerabilities while keeping a clear focus on children’s safety.

    Inspectors said practitioners used these tools to help children with complex needs manage their behaviours and express their views, while for vulnerable teenagers, “skilful direct work” was helping them develop strategies to leave harmful situations.

    Ofsted found social workers exhibited “trauma-informed therapeutic practice” and praised the care they took to understand family histories, cultural heritage and each child’s unique and diverse needs.

    ‘Highly skilled, well-trained social workers’

    Ofsted said Merton’s services for children in care and young people leaving care were outstanding, having previously rated them as good. Inspectors found “highly skilled, well-trained” practitioners were using a wide range of direct work tools to understand children’s histories and identities and build trusting relationships with them.

    Tailored mental health support, both from the co-located CAMHS service and skilled social workers, was helping build children’s resilience and preventing placement breakdown, said Ofsted.

    The inspectorate said the council was “dedicated to pursuing timely permanence for all children if they cannot live safely with their birth families”. Most children in care and care leavers lived in “safe, stable, good-quality homes that meet their needs”, where appropriate, with siblings or extended family, found inspectors.

    Ofsted praised the impact of an increase in the number of personal advisers, who it said advocated “tenaciously” for care leavers to ensure they received the best support to move safely into independence. This involved maintaining close contact, including when young people were out of area or in custody, providing support beyond the age of 25 where necessary and encouraging young people to attend regular health checks.

    Leaders ‘listening to staff’

    In rating leadership as outstanding, inspectors said senior managers had invested considerably in professional development, “leading to sophisticated and transformative direct work with children and families”.

    Leaders also listened to staff, for example, by adapting and expanding Merton’s practice model when social workers said they found it too restrictive.

    Management oversight supported robust practice in most teams working with children in need of help or protection, while quality assurance activity had “driven up standards across the service”.

    ‘Nimble’ response to Covid demand spike

    The inspectorate also praised leaders for a “nimble” response in bringing in “much-needed” additional social work resource due to a substantial increase in the number of children on child protection plans during the pandemic.

    Amid the authority’s staffing pressures, Ofsted said Merton had a “relentless focus” on recruitment and retention of frontline managers and social workers, which was increasing the number of permanent staff.

    It said leaders were keeping caseloads manageable, “providing staff with the space and opportunity to get to know their children and families very well”.

    Average caseloads at September 2021 were 14.4, in line with the average for London but down from 16.8 in September 2020, according to the Department for Education’s annual workforce statistics.

    In terms of areas for improvement, Ofsted said some children who entered care in an emergency were not taken to foster carers by social care staff, and that the quality of work by out-of-hours staff in these situations needed to be better.

    It also found that care leavers had to accept their first housing offer or risk losing priority status, and the authority needed to be more flexible, though inspectors pointed out that Merton was addressing this.

    ‘Ringing endorsement’

    Eleanor Stringer, cabinet member for children and education at the time of the inspection, said the outstanding rating was “a ringing endorsement” of the work children’s services staff had done over the past five years.

    “I’m particularly proud that Ofsted recognised how staff went above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic to continue to provide excellent services despite the disruption involved and I’d like to thank everyone for their hard work over the past few years,” she said.

    “The team are a credit to the borough, and I’m proud that as a council we have supported and protected our children’s services throughout a challenging period.”

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