Council’s lack of social workers and demand spike led to delays in children receiving help, finds Ofsted

Stockton-on-Tees says fully staffed assessment team now providing more consistent service though it is not complacent about improvements needed following critical visit from inspectors

Dial pointing at the word 'performance'
Photo: Coloures-pic/Adobe Stock

A lack of social work capacity, high staff turnover and a spike in demand led to delays in children receiving help and protection at Stockton-on-Tees council, Ofsted found in its latest visit to the authority.

In a probe in September focused on the North East council’s front door service, inspectors found that eighty children were waiting to be allocated to a social worker due to staff shortages in assessment teams and increased demand.

While children were overseen by a duty social worker and manager while waiting to be allocated, and immediate safeguarding concerns were responded to swiftly, Ofsted said “too many families” were experiencing delays in being assessed and children were waiting too long to receive the help, protection and support they needed.

In response to the report, published at the end of last month, the council said its assessment team was now fully staffed and providing a more consistent service for children and families.

The visit was Ofsted’s second since it downgraded Stockton from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’ in 2019, with the first visit having praised improvements for children in care under “determined and well-established senior leadership team” and “committed, skilled and dedicated social workers”.

Lack of police triage placing significant demands on staff

However, on its return, Ofsted found that Stockton, which commissions its front door service through a partnership with neighbouring Hartlepool council, had experienced a spike in demand – to a level previously unseen – due to the police sending “too many” referrals without triage.

“This is placing significant and additional demands on staff, who are already working to capacity,” inspectors found.

Children were also being stepped down to early help or having their cases closed without a full understanding of their needs, often due to parental lack of consent to share information or have an assessment, leading to increasing re-referral rates.

Senior managers had recently carried out a review of the front door to understand the causes of increased demand, leading to investment in social work capacity and management oversight. However, this had not yet led to a reduction in social worker caseloads or enough capacity to meet demand, said Ofsted.

‘Poor management oversight affecting assessment quality’

The demand pressures at the front door were feeding through to the assessment sevice, which was understaffed at the time, leading to the high numbers of unallocated cases.

But Ofsted also criticised the quality of the assessments inspectors saw, with many not including the child’s voice or an understanding of their lived experience, or only considering the presenting reason for referral rather than family history or relationships.

Inspectors linked this to “some very recent poor management oversight and decision-making”, which had meant that managers were not overseeing the quality of assessments well enough or providing social workers with consistent guidance and direction to develop their practice and work towards achieving sustainable and safe progress for children.

Recently appointed managers were improving oversight across the assessment, early help and emergency duty teams, Ofsted found.

Following the visit, Ofsted said Stockton needed to take urgent action to improve:

  • The identification and screening of risk and need.
  • The quality of assessments and decision-making.
  • The quality and effectiveness of managerial oversight, timely case allocation, and supervision.

It said it had notified the Department for Education about these issues and expected the authority to submit an action plan to address them within 70 days.

Authority ‘disappointed but not complacent’

In response to the inspection, Lisa Evans, Stockton-on-Tees council’s cabinet member for children and young people, said: “We are disappointed but fully accept Ofsted’s concerns and have put in place a new, improved approach to respond to the issues raised, making sure children receive help, protection, and support promptly, when needed.

“While we acknowledge staffing pressures and the volume of referrals and enquiries presented challenges, the Assessment Team is now fully staffed which will provide a more consistent service for children and families.

“We are working hard, alongside partners, to address the inspectors’ findings but we are not complacent about the improvements needed in our action plan. We are determined to make these changes as quickly as we can and have the building blocks in place to do this.”


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