Vacancy spike delayed permanence for some children but Ofsted finds progress at struggling council

More stable workforce, lower caseloads and new leadership have improved children in care service at St Helens but inspectors warn progress too slow since last inspection

Telephone kiosks outside St Helens town hall
St Helens town hall (photo by Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons

A social work vacancy spike led to delays in permanence for some children at an ‘inadequate’ council last year, but Ofsted has found signs of improvement in its latest visit.

Inspectors said progress for children in care overall was too slow at St Helens since its last inspection, in 2019, following a monitoring visit in July. This echoed Ofsted’s findings in relation to children in need of help and protection from visits in November 2021 and March this year.

The North West council’s children’s social worker vacancy rate rose from 13.6% in September 2020 to 19.6% 12 months later while turnover trebled from 8.4% in the year to September 2020 to 24.3% in 2020-21.

Ofsted found this this had led to delays in securing permanence for some children by increasing caseloads for social workers.

Higher vacancies lead to delays for children

“The increase of social work vacancies and sickness during 2021 meant that some
social workers had too many children on their caseloads to complete the work
necessary to achieve permanence for all children,” it said.

“The plan for permanence for some children has not been achieved because of too many changes of social worker, a lack of pace and ineffective management oversight.”

Plans to improve management oversight by improving systems tracking permanence plans had not been actioned, inspectors found.

Children’s care plans were not always clear, lacking timescales and sufficiently specific actions, which meant children, their families and professionals lacked a clear understanding of what they were working towards.

Turnaround under new leaders

However, inspectors found signs of a turnaround under director of children’s services Hilary Brooks and a new assistant director, both of whom were appointed in the summer following interim spells at the authority.

They said that they had targeted resources to reduce social worker caseloads, improving practice and enabling some social workers to complete “highly effective” direct work that was speeding up permanence for children. A more stable workforce meant children did not have to repeat their stories as often, said Ofsted.

Brooks and her AD had also developed a more accurate understanding of what needed to improve and strengthened oversight, though inspectors found a lack of regular auditing of case files meant leaders could not be fully assured about the quality of practice.

Other improvements included social workers and independent reviewing officers now addressing their records to the child, a “significant shift” that would make it easier for children to understand what had happened to them. However, inspectors said too many records included language and content that was not sufficiently child friendly, making it potentially confusing and distressing for children to read when they were older.

Social workers said they felt positive about the new leadership, supported – including through regular supervision – and listened to.

Initiatives to cut caseloads

In response to the report, Nova Charlton, St Helens’ cabinet member for children and young people’s services, said: “The inspectors have given us a clear picture of the progress being made and areas in which we know changes need to continue so that we can see further improvement happening for young people and their families.

“Changes to our leadership team have brought about a renewed sense of purpose and focus for everyone in children’s services and our director of children’s services, Hilary Brooks, and her team’s impact is clear from the feedback from our hard-working staff.

“We are continuing to find different ways to relieve pressure on our social workers through projects like creating new assistant social worker roles to strengthen the efforts to reduce caseloads. We will continue to work closely with the improvement board to make the necessary changes to transform our service for children and young people in St Helens borough.”

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