A council’s children’s services have improved to ‘outstanding’ despite being inspected against the backdrop of “extreme” workforce challenges.
Ofsted promoted Kent council from the good rating it earned in 2017 after finding progress against all areas of improvement from the previous inspection. Following the latest inspection in May, it praised how leaders had responded to Covid-19 and “unparalleled” numbers of unaccompanied children entering the county.
This helped contribute to the county being rated outstanding for leadership, while it earned the same grade for services to children in care and care leavers, where inspectors praised the relationships practitioners built with young people.
Services for children in need of help and protection were ‘good’, with inspectors finding effective practice overall, but that caseloads were too high across several teams, including for social workers on the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).
‘Extreme’ workforce pressures
Caseloads in Kent have generally been in line with national and regional averages over recent years, averaging 16.4 as of September 2021, according to Department for Education figures.
However, when inspectors arrived in May, they found workforce pressures presented “extreme challenges” for the authority, having risen since December 2021.
While this was not yet having a direct negative impact on children, social workers reported that they could not do everything they wanted to do with families or keep children’s records up to date, while leaders recognised the situation was not sustainable.
Following a review into caseloads, the council ploughed £1.4m into increasing the number of social work in April and gave children’s services more flexibility to bring in agency staff.
This has led to locum teams being brought in to support the most under-pressure districts, while the authority has also redirected non-caseholding practitioners, assistant social workers and early help practitioners into doing social work tasks.
“Leaders are monitoring the impact on children and the welfare of and workforce pressures on their staff, and managers are adjusting their responses to ensure they are all well supported,” the report said.
‘Strong focus and commitment to workforce development’
Despite the pressures, staff – including those with higher caseloads – expressed pride in working for Kent, citing the regular, reflective supervision most of them received and the “excellent” training opportunities.
This reflected a “strong focus and commitment to workforce development” by leaders, with staff, both within the council and from partners, being given access to “information, training and tools to strengthen them in their work to support children and their families”.
Strong areas of practice knowledge included domestic abuse, parental mental health and substance use, and the impact of trauma and long-term neglect on children’s development.
Kent had also “made considerable improvements to responses, services and support to children at risk of contextualised harm” by working with academics in this area.
An adolescent team provided flexible support to these children, tailored to their needs, and were intervening earlier with them, meaning they avoided further harm.
‘Lovely rich communication’
Other strengths included practice with disabled children in care, who received “exceptional support from their social workers, whose care and commitment shines through their work”.
“Written notes of visits show lovely rich communication with children using a wide range of styles, including some as basic as touch and reading facial expressions,” found the report. “This communication helps build strong trusting relationships.”
The council also had a strong focus on supporting children in care’s links with their family. It effectively used family group conferencing to help children find homes with connected carers, which often meant they did not come into care or were enabled to leave care on special guardianship orders.
Social workers also understood the importance of family time for children in care, and skilfully promoted this in line with children’s wishes, “creating enduring support networks and family links”.
Ofsted found social workers showed persistence in building and maintaining strong relationships with looked-after children, and sensitively and thoughtfully addressed their cultural and identity needs.
Social workers also supported children “extremely well” through transitions and placement moves to ensure they secured the most well-matched long-term home.
Kent had above-average numbers of children living within its own provision, often with experienced foster carers who, in turn, were “universally positive” about the support they received, said the report.
‘Unparalleled numbers of young asylum seekers’
The council also had to manage an “unparalleled” number of asylum-seeking children arriving in the county. It refused to accept any young asylum seekers into its care from June to September 2021 after reaching “an unsafe capacity”.
However, subsequently, the government agreed to its longstanding call to make the formerly voluntary national transfer scheme – designed to ensure a fairer distribution of unaccompanied children between councils – mandatory, in December 2021. Since then, significant numbers of children have moved from Kent to other areas, including in the quarter before Ofsted visited.
Inspectors found that senior leaders at Kent had contributed significantly to the national response to unaccompanied children while managing local services well. This included identifying vulnerable children and reducing risks to them, accommodating children in a timely way and responding to their individual needs.
‘A fantastic result but the work does not stop’
In response to the result, Kent’s director of children’s services, Sarah Hammond, said: “I am incredibly proud that our children’s services have been rated as outstanding. It reflects the positive difference our staff make every day to the lives of children, young people and their families, as well as their dedication and commitment to providing the best possible standard of service.
“This is a fantastic result, but our work does not stop here. We will continue to make further improvements to our services and professional practice so that we continue to deliver outstanding services for our children, young people and their families.”