A small number of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) have been left vulnerable by holding overly complex child protection cases at a London borough, despite effective performance overall, Ofsted has found.
Inspectors praised “exceptionally strong” practice to address extra-familial harm and the relationships practitioners built with families, in a visit to good-rated Waltham Forest in May focused on child protection and child in need services.
However, in the context of “significant recruitment and retention challenges”, shared with many other authorities, Ofsted found a small number of NQSWs were holding child protection cases that were too complex for them.
“They have not been receiving the support that they need to respond to this level of risk,” said the inspectorate. “This has created a vulnerability for them as workers and could mean that risk and needs are not addressed for children.”
Ofsted added that other employees faced excessively high caseloads, leaving them unable “to do effective direct work with families to bring about change in a timely way”.
Agency worker and vacancy rates have been persistently higher in London than in other regions, show government children’s social work workforce statistics.
However, Waltham Forest’s rates for both measures (30.1%), as of September 2021, were above the averages for the capital, which were 22% for agency workers and 23.5% for vacancies.
‘Significant’ supervision gaps
In a letter following the focused visit, inspectors noted that senior leaders were taking steps to mitigate the authority’s recruitment difficulties. They were, however, unaware of the issue with NQSWs taking on unsuitable cases, although they took “swift and appropriate action” to remedy it, including strengthening management oversight.
While staff felt well-supported by “accessible and responsive” team managers, Ofsted found that “too many social workers” had “significant gaps” when supervision had either not taken place or not been recorded.
In “too many cases”, supervision was not used to review children’s care plans or check agreed actions had taken place, resulting in visits that lacked purpose and children remaining on child protection or child in need plans for longer than necessary.
Despite these concerns, Ofsted found services for children in need of help and protection had largely remained effective since Waltham Forest was rated good at its last full inspection in 2019. In some areas, the borough had made progress, including making links between muti-agency risk assessment conferences and child protection plans for children living with domestic abuse.
‘Exceptionally strong’ work to address extra-familial harm
Help provided to children at risk of extra-familial harm, and to their families, was also “exceptionally strong”, inspectors found. “A range of specialists support this work, but social workers are also skilled at working with children who may be at risk.”
Feedback from families who inspectors spoke to was also positive.
“One parent said that she feels well supported and described a skilled, diligent, responsive social worker who advocates strongly for her child,” Ofsted wrote. “Another parent described how she had experienced responsive support in a crisis, with sensitive, thoughtful practice, effective direct work and strong advocacy for the child to be seen as a child, and not as the sum of his vulnerabilities or behaviour.”
Inspectors noted that social workers prioritised visits to families and listened well to children, who responded well to their approaches. As part of effective relationship-building, social workers made “persistent and determined” efforts to involve fathers, they added.
Partnership working was well understood by social workers and a “particular strength”, with meetings well attended, the inspectorate added in a letter to director of children’s services Heather Flinders.
Recent Ofsted reports
“Partner agencies make meaningful contributions to plans, both in helping to formulate them and in contributing to the work with the family,” Ofsted said. “Partners contribute their skills, expertise and resources to help families to progress.”
Recruitment ‘an acute London challenge’
In response to the visit, Waltham Forest’s cabinet member for children and young people, Alistair Strathern, said the authority was pleased that Ofsted had recognised its effective performance with children in need of help or protection.
“The inspectors noted that these children benefit from positive and helpful relationships with our committed and enthusiastic social workers, who visit the children regularly and help improve their lives, while many families feel very well supported and value the service they receive,” he said.
“The sector-wide challenge of recruiting social workers is particularly acute in London and means that high caseloads for some social workers, while ensuring that children are always regularly supported by social workers with the relevant level of experience, remains an issue for Waltham Forest and other local authorities.
“The Ofsted inspectors acknowledged that the council responds to these challenges quickly and appropriately. Children’s service improvement will continue to be a high priority for the Council so that every child in Waltham Forest receives the best start in life.”