By Rob Preston and Mithran Samuel
A council’s lack of social work capacity is leaving children inadequately protected, Ofsted has found, as it downgraded its children’s services to inadequate.
Inspectors found “serious and widespread failures” in core areas of social work practice at Sefton council, including assessment, planning and management oversight, and said that these had not been “sufficiently understood” by leaders.
Not only had there been a “significant deterioration” in services since Sefton’s last full inspection in 2016, when it was rated requires improvement, but the council had failed to tackle failings identified in a joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) in 2019 and a focused visit in March 2021.
The 2019 JTAI, focused on the front door and children with mental health needs, said high caseloads were negatively affecting social workers’ practice and found poor planning and incomplete investigations of risks for some children.
The 2021 visit, focused on the monitoring of children on child protection plans and pre-proceedings, also found too many social workers had high caseloads and that too many children were left in high-risk situations for too long. It also found that “poor-quality supervision and ineffective management challenge contribute to drift and delay for children”.
‘Overreliance on agency workers’
Ofsted’s latest inspection, in February and March 2022, unearthed similar themes, identifying “serious and widespread failures” in safeguarding, creating delays in meeting the needs of “highly vulnerable children”, leaving them at risk of “significant harm”. This was in part due to “insufficient workforce capacity and lack of management oversight and challenge”.
Inspectors found that an “overreliance on agency staff at all levels” was contributing to delays and leading to children experiencing many changes in social worker and essential work not always being completed.
Department for Education figures show that Sefton council’s agency worker rate doubled, from 9.7% to 19.8%, from 2019-21, with caseloads stubbornly above national levels over that time, averaging 21.3 in 2021, according to the DfE’s measure.
This instability reached up to leadership levels, where there was “a lack of stable, senior management”, leaving the service in a “precarious” state. Ofsted rated leadership, services for children in care and care leavers and those for children in need of help and protection as inadequate.
Failings across help and protection services
Ofsted found failings across help and protection services, with “serious gaps” in early help, and children moving back and forth between this service and the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) without having their needs assessed and responded to.
Most assessments were poor, being focused on the presenting issue without considering children’s histories or information from partners, leading in some cases to cases being inappropriately closed without intervention.
Though most children were visited regularly, visits were not always by the same social worker and were often not purposeful, just comprising basic welfare checks.
Also, multi-agency child in need meetings and core groups were not always taking place and plans were not always updated.
“Consequently, too many children are receiving a poor service that fails to respond to concerns, address the children’s needs and ensure that they are protected,” said inspectors.
‘Widespread and unnecessary delays’
In relation to children in care, inspectors found “widespread and unnecessary delays in securing timely permanence”, including because of delays in assessing family and friends carers and securing legal permanence for those in section 20 arrangements who could not return home. There were also delays in securing special guardianship orders or discharging orders for children placed at home, leaving children subject to statutory interventions for too long.
Too many children lived in placements that had not been fully assessed as safe or suitable to meet their needs. This included some being placed in unregulated accommodation when they needed a regulated placements, as well as those placed with family and friends who had not been fully assessed as safe to meet their needs.
There were “serious and substantial weaknesses” – recognised by senior managers – in the fostering service, particularly around the recruitment, assessment and support of foster carers. This lessened the authority’s ability to know whether children continued to live in placements that met their needs – though Sefton had restructured the service to increase management oversight to address these issues.
Most assessments were weak, resulting in “basic” and “superficial” care plans, while social work visits, though regular, often lacked purpose, with too many children experiencing changes in social worker.
Meanwhile, not all care leavers were receiving a service from Sefton and too many were not accessing employment, education or training, a legacy of the poor educational support for children in care in the borough.
The DfE issued an improvement notice to the council in May last year after the focused visit from Ofsted, instructing the council to create an improvement plan addressing the shortcomings and deliver on these by May 2022. The council has also appointed an improvement board to oversee the plan’s implementation.
The new Ofsted report said children’s social care was “still in the very early days of its improvement” at the authority.
“Senior managers are restructuring services and creating systems that have previously been absent, while starting to address the legacy and impact of practice shortfalls for children,” it said.
“Most improvement plans are not implemented, or too new, and it is too soon to see the difference that these actions will make to children.”
Community Care has contacted the DfE to ask whether it will now increase its level of intervention into Sefton by placing it under a statutory direction and appoint a commissioner to direct improvements, following Ofsted’s ‘inadequate’ verdict.
New DCS vows to lead improvements
The inspection report comes with a new director of children’s services, Martin Birch, having started at Sefton last month. He joined from Sunderland’s Together for Children trust, where he was part of the senior team that oversaw an improvement from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ in consecutive Ofsted inspections from 2018-21.
Responding to Sefton’s Ofsted report, Birch said he was “very disappointed” by the outcome but accepted its findings and pledged to “take these recommendations on board, learn, and improve”.
“We take Ofsted’s findings incredibly seriously and we have already started making changes in response to the report,” he said.
The council said it had invested an extra £10m into children’s social care in 2021-22, including to recruit more staff.
“Ofsted have recognised in this report how changes over the last year are starting to make a positive difference in areas such as the multi-agency safeguarding hub and the fostering service but most importantly, inspectors did not find any children at risk of immediate harm,” said Birch.
“Our dedicated staff have a renewed sense of optimism and are committed to delivering the improvements needed.
“Our main area for improvement must now focus on the need for better permanence planning for cared for children, to ensure that all children know what their long-term plan is, so that they feel safe and secure about their future.”
Birch said the council would continue to work with its improvement board and the DfE.