Ofsted has praised social workers at a West Midlands council for their efforts to keep families together, while warning that high caseloads and case management system issues risk undermining their good work.
In a focused visit to Staffordshire council, inspectors commended “skilled” practitioners’ direct work, which “has helped maintain a very high proportion of children who remain at home or return to the care of their family”.
Throughout the pandemic, which had taken place since the last full inspection graded Staffordshire ‘good’, the local authority had “continued to support and manage risk effectively for the most vulnerable children and families,” a letter published after the focused visit observed.
The visit focused on services for children in need of help and protection, the only area in which the local authority was deemed to require improvement at its 2019 inspection.
Staffordshire’s social workers understood children’s experiences well, delivering strong assessments founded on effective partnership working and with the views of family members “threaded through” them, Ofsted said. In most cases, interventions were pitched at the right level, with appropriate decisions taken promptly.
“Senior managers oversee decisions for children to come into care [that] are timely, well considered and based on comprehensive risk assessments,” inspectors wrote. “Social workers respond effectively to each child’s situation, whether on a planned or emergency basis, improving outcomes for children.”
Case management system ‘time consuming and difficult’
While social workers said they felt well supported by managers, including around training offered to them, and well supervised, Ofsted warned that records did not always support this view.
“[Supervision] records are poor, lacking detail of children’s experiences and reflection on practice,” inspectors wrote.
“For some children, there is little evidence of team managers recording actions that will progress children’s plans,” they continued. “Due to this lack of oversight, there is potential for children’s plans to drift.”
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The letter added that excessive caseloads were preventing some social workers from completing consistently good work “despite a high level of commitment”, meaning some case records did not comprehensively reflect children’s experiences.
Practitioners were “further hindered” by the case management system “because it is time-consuming and difficult to navigate,” Ofsted wrote. “Some social workers also reported having to work in their own time to stay up to date with recording.”
The pressures were leading to delays for some children, inspectors found, though they noted that senior managers recognised the issues at hand and were trying to recruit both social workers and administrative support staff.
“Senior leaders are aware of the continuing challenges regarding the different reporting systems that contribute to the performance management and accuracy of children’s data,” Ofsted said. Children’s services bosses were implementing a new performance management system and also planning to tackle issues with auditing processes, the focused visit found.
Systems ‘being upgraded’ as council aims to consolidate strengths
Responding to the focused visit letter, Mark Sutton, Staffordshire council’s cabinet member for children and young people, said he was “delighted” Ofsted had recognised the “tireless work of our children’s services” through the pandemic.
“Last year, our children’s services underwent a significant structural transformation,” Sutton added. “This visit is an early indication that new practices and procedures are working well and we look forward to building on this ahead of the next full inspection.”
He added that high caseloads were an issue for children’s social services nationally, and that the council would continue to recruit additional social workers and support staff to help reduce the workloads of existing staff. “We are also upgrading our electronic record systems, which will help to improve speed and accuracy of record keeping,” Sutton said.