Social workers who are “passionate and knowledgeable about children’s needs” have helped a council improve from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’, despite “continuous workforce challenges”.
In a report last week, Ofsted praised Derby council’s successful implementation of a strengths-based practice model, against the backdrop of Covid-19, for enabling practitioners to support children well and improving supervision.
Senior leaders had taken “creative” action on social worker recruitment and retention to ensure practitioners’ caseloads remained “manageable” in a “challenging” workforce environment, it added.
‘Passionate and knowledgeable’
Ofsted found the council had made progress on all the recommendations from its previous inspection in 2017.
The biggest improvement was in Derby’s services for children in need of help and protection, which were ‘requires improvement’ in 2017, but ‘outstanding’ in the latest report, with inspectors finding children received a “consistently high-quality service”.
Ofsted said social workers were “passionate and knowledgeable about children’s needs”. “Comprehensive” assessments captured children’s views and wishes, used family history to identify risks and considered children’s culture and identity, while plans were also of “consistently good quality”.
This was supported by the practice model, which helped staff ask difficult questions to help parents and children understand why services were involved with them.
Ofsted said that staff had “embraced” the model and used it “consistently and effectively to support children”.
New practice model leading to improved supervision
In rating leadership as outstanding also, inspectors praised senior managers for successfully implementing and embedding the model during the pandemic.
It said the model had “shaped and improved the quality of supervision and management oversight” and provided clear evidence of the rationale for decision-making.
Overall, supervision was “regular and generally of a good standard, combining management direction with opportunities for reflection and individual support”, Ofsted added.
Inspectors also praised leaders for sustaining social work recruitment and retention “in a challenging environment”, to ensure that most social workers had manageable workloads.
Derby’s turnover rate for social workers almost doubled, from 8.8% to 15.2%, from 2019-20 to 2020-21, as did its agency worker rate, from 6.5% to 12.1%, according to Department for Education figures.
This brought turnover up to the national average though Derby’s agency worker rate remained significantly below the England-wide rate of 15.5%.
According to the DfE’s measure – which is controversial with practitioners – Derby’s average caseloads edged up, from 17.4 to 18.3, between 2020 and 2021, above the national average of 16.3.
Leaders ‘accessible and supportive’
Inspectors also said social workers consistently reported that senior leaders and managers were accessible, supportive and keen to hear their views about how services could be improved. Staff also appreciated the council’s continuing professional development offer, including a series of lunchtime learning events.
The one area not rated outstanding was provision for children in care and care leavers, which retained the good grade Derby obtained in 2017.
As with children in need of help and protection, inspectors said assessments were comprehensive, and praised the quality of care planning, as well as oversight by independent reviewing officers.
Social workers visited children regularly, helping to build trusting relationships, however, some children said they had too many changes of practitioner and had to repeat their stories.
While some children benefited from good-quality life story work, not all did, though the report pointed out that senior leaders had invested in this area, including by recruiting a practitioner to support social workers to carry it out.
Insufficient care placements
Ofsted found that children who needed permanent care lived with carers who met their needs and most made good progress.
However, it said there were not enough placement options for children who needed care, and that sufficiency was “a continuous challenge”.
“This means that some children live outside Derby, resulting in changes of school and more complex arrangements around family time,” its report said.
It said there continued to be an overall shortfall of foster carers in Derby but that their number was increasing following targeted recruitment campaigns.
In relation to care leavers, Ofsted praised “passionate” and “committed” personal advisers, who invested in building strong relationships that made young people feel valued.
Andy Smith, Derby’s strategic director of people services, said: “Our staff are dedicated to seeking the best outcomes for Derby’s children and work incredibly hard in what is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding job.
“To be rated outstanding is a real achievement and a testament to their passion and hard work. We’ve come a long way in five years but we know there is still work to be done to be even better, and we have plans in place for this.”