‘Considerable investment’ in social work has helped a council under government intervention since 2017 improve to ‘good’ after successive inadequate judgments by Ofsted.
Torbay, rated inadequate in 2016 and 2018, saw its vacancy rate hit almost 40% in 2020, with successive Ofsted visits in 2019-20 warning about the impact of high agency staff usage and caseloads.
However, in a full inspection in March, Ofsted found the council had just three vacant social work posts and praised its “highly effective” recruitment and retention strategy for creating a “largely stable permanent workforce” at the authority.
“As a result, manageable caseloads now enable stronger and more constructive relationships to be built with most children and families,” said Ofsted’s report, published this week.
The good rating marks a substantial turnaround for Torbay, which was required by the Department for Education to enter a partnership with Plymouth council from April 2018, in which its neighbour effectively managed its services. This followed a 2017 report from its then DfE-appointed commissioner, John Coughlan, which concluded that Torbay could not run its services autonomously in the foreseeable future.
The partnership ended in January 2020 after not delivering as expected, as Torbay’s workforce became increasingly unstable. Its full-time equivalent vacancy rate for social workers rose from 27.1% in September 2018 to 38.7% in September 2020, with its agency worker rate topping 40% and successive Ofsted monitoring visits raising concerns about high caseloads.
However, Nigel Richardson, who replaced Coughlan as commissioner for Torbay, noted improvements at the authority in a report last year, and concluded that it should retain control of its children’s services.
As a result, the DfE replaced Richardson with a lighter touch monitoring arrangement, under improvement adviser Claire Burgess.
Vacancy rates ‘decreased significantly’
In its inspection report, Ofsted praised the council’s work to “significantly” decrease its social work vacancy rate, with just three posts unfilled as of March this year, and agency staff being used to provide support for newly qualified practitioners and those recruited from overseas.
This was on the back of Torbay’s “highly effective” recruitment and retention strategy, which included ”extensive resettlement support, comprehensive induction and capped caseloads” for staff recruited from overseas until they grow in experience.
It also encompassed the council’s learning academy, launched in September 2020, which had also increased social workers’ skills by providing a three-year programme for newly qualified staff and advanced and skills-based courses for the wider workforce.
Experienced and newly qualified social workers valued the “considerable investment in their professional development”, the report said.
Ofsted also found that Torbay’s “highly visible, approachable and involved managers” prioritised “supporting and nurturing long-serving staff”, resulting in promotion to more senior posts.
“This investment makes social workers want to stay and work in Torbay and ensures that workers have the right skills to improve children’s lives,” said the report. “Morale is good across the service.”
‘Doing with’ not ‘doing to’
Services for children in need of help and protection were rated good. Inspectors said Torbay’s early help services were “greatly improved”, with good-quality assessments and a multi-agency “team around the family approach” preventing risks from escalating.
Most social work assessments were of good quality with practitioners sensitively evaluating the impact of domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental illness on parents, while keeping a clear focus on children’s need to stay safe.
These made use of Torbay’s restorative model of practice, which had a focus on working with families.
“An ethos of ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’ is progressively becoming embedded across services, leading to more sophisticated and effective direct work with children and their families,” it said.
However, while inspectors said the council’s child in need plans identified children’s most important needs and the key risks to them, some were “not updated following significant events or changes to children’s circumstances”.
They also said the quality of child in need work was not consistent for all disabled children, which meant some experienced a delay in making progress in line with their assessed needs.
Supervising social workers praised by foster carers
Services for children in care and care leavers were also rated good. Most children who could not stay with their parents lived in stable placements that met their needs and in which they made good progress, with social workers working hard to build trusting relationships with children.
Meanwhile, foster carers highly praised the support they received from supervising social workers, whom Ofsted found provided a good balance of professional challenge and support for carers.
For care leavers, “dedicated” personal advisers worked hard to stay in touch with them and provide them with the support they needed, including by actively seeking to reengage those not in education, employment or training.
However, not all children in care had effective life-story work carried out with them, and Ofsted said the council needed to have clearer expectations of workers when care leavers lived in emergency accommodation.
“Shortages in supply have meant that a very small number of care leavers have been placed in bed and breakfast accommodation. Oversight of these arrangements is not sufficiently robust, particularly in terms of visiting arrangements and supporting young people with everyday needs,” the report said.
But Ofsted said the local authority strengthened the support offered to these young people during the inspection.
Leadership was also rated good, with Ofsted saying that senior managers had “repeatedly taken the right steps since the previous inspection to reconfigure and realign their services, making them fit for purpose, child-centred and consistent with their improvement priorities”.
However, while Ofsted found management direction was recorded clearly, leaders needed to do more to improve the “quality, consistency and timeliness of supervision” across children’s services teams.
Council now aims for ‘outstanding’ rating
Nancy Meehan, director of children’s services at Torbay since October 2019, said Ofsted’s report paid testament to the “passion and dedication” of the council’s workforce.
“It’s wonderful for our staff, partners, children, families and young people to be told that after many years of underperforming, Torbay council is now considered ‘good’ across all of the judgment areas,” she said.
“Our journey in becoming a more child and family friendly Torbay is starting to bear fruit. We are committed to driving through more improvements and will strive to become an ‘outstanding’ authority so we can deliver the best possible opportunities for children, families and young people in our care and across the bay.”