‘Consistently high standards’ of social work earns Cafcass across-the-board outstanding rating

Ofsted praises family court body for 'remarkable' achievement of delivering high-quality practice across its 19 service areas and improvements in private and public law, but highlights risk to standards from workforce challenges

Image of compass arrow pointing to word 'improvement' (credit: Coloures-Pic / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Coloures-Pic / Adobe Stock)

“Consistently high standards” of social work practice have earned Cafcass an across-the-board outstanding rating in its latest national inspection by Ofsted.

The inspectorate praised the family court body – England’s largest social work employer – for the “remarkable” achievement of delivering high-quality practice across its 19 service areas and for improving from the high baseline set by its 2018 inspection.

Then, it was rated outstanding overall and for local and national leadership, and good for the quality and effectiveness of its public and private law practice. When inspectors returned in February this year, they found leadership still outstanding and that the quality of public and private law practice had improved to the same level.

Biggest social work employer

As of March 2023, Cafcass employed 1,721 social workers (source: Cafcass annual report, 2022-23). The biggest local authority employer in England is Essex County Council, which employed, as of September 2023, 938 social workers in children’s services (source: DfE children’s social work workforce, 2023) and 475 in adult social care (source: Skills for Care, The workforce employed by adult social services departments in England), so 1,413 in total.

This is despite the organisation having managed “unprecedented demand” for its services in the wake of Covid-19 and the resulting “challenging delays” for children involved in court proceedings.

Praise for practice and management

Inspectors praised family court advisers (FCAs) and guardians for placing children at the forefront of their practice and for the quality of their direct work, assessments and safeguarding practice, while hailing senior leaders for providing the “scaffolding for outstanding practice to flourish”.

This included Together for children and families, its practice framework introduced in 2021, a “highly impressive” training offer and “comprehensive” health and wellbeing provision.

However, amid increasing staff turnover – linked to annual pay rises at lagging consistently behind those for local authorities – Ofsted said that Cafcass’s leaders recognised that standards would be hard to maintain without a “skilled and committed workforce”.

‘Unprecedented demand’

In the wake of the pandemic, Cafcass faced significantly greater demand, with a 26% rise in the number of open cases from March 2020 to April 2021. This was due to cases taking much longer to conclude – due to reduced court availability – and increased demand for private law.

Though the number of open cases has since fallen back to pre-Covid levels, Ofsted said Cafcass had faced “unprecedented demand” and “challenging delays for children”, which remained an issue because of ongoing family court backlogs.

Inspectors Cafcass’s prioritisation protocol – under which lower-risk private law cases have been held by managers until they can be allocated to an FCA in some areas – had been “highly effective” in managing demand.

Ofsted said it had meant children at greatest risk were promptly allocated an FCA, while protecting staff workloads, thereby supporting high-quality practice.

FCAs ‘making exceptional difference to children’

In private law more generally, inspectors found FCAs were making an “exceptional difference to children’s lives” through the “great skill, respect and appropriate rigour” that they applied to a “hugely complex, emotive and challenging area of work”.

The quality of safeguarding letters – short reports FCAs write to the family court following initial safeguarding enquiries that summarise the child’s circumstances and highlight any welfare concerns or risks – was “excellent”, said Ofsted.

It delivered a similar verdict on the calibre of section 7 reports, which provide more detailed advice to the court on a child’s best interests, generally in cases where there are disputes between parents about a child’s residence or contact, often involving alleged domestic abuse.

It found that these were based on “highly effective assessment work” and had a “relentless focus on the child” and their needs, while their recommendations were “well evidenced, appropriate, proportionate and in children’s best interests”.

While FCAs undertook parental interviews respectfully, non-judgmentally and sensitively, they evaluated adults’ behaviour with “the clear purpose of understanding the impact on the child and establishing what is in the child’s best interests”.

Children facing long delays

Ofsted said that “too many children experience delay in private law proceedings, resulting in uncertainty about their future living arrangements”.

According to latest Cafcass data, as of January 2024, 7,223 children were involved in private law cases that had been open for at least a year, of whom, 2,930 children had been in proceedings lasting 100+ weeks.

The inspectorate said that the causes of delay were multiple, that FCAs “resolutely focus on driving children’s cases to a resolution as swiftly as possible” and that delays were starting to reduce.

It also pointed to the success of a pilot to reduce delays in rule 16.4 cases – where a guardian is appointed to represent the child because of the complexity of the case – which is now standard practice across the country.

Ofsted also noted the “detrimental impact” on “too many” children from delays in public law cases, notably in care proceedings, but again praised Cafcass practitioners for working collaboratively with councils to shorten the length of proceedings.

‘Effective and child-focused’ practice having tangible impact

More broadly, inspectors found children’s guardians’ “effective and child-focused” practice was having “a tangible and positive impact on children’s lives”.

As with FCAs in private law, Ofsted praised guardians’ use of introductory letters to children to help them understand what was happening to them and why the practitioner would be visiting them, as well as their creative use of direct work to understand children’s needs and views.

Guardians showed “sensitivity, tenacity and care” in building “trusting relationships” with children, seeing them as often as possible to establish their wishes and feelings, which was done “impressively quickly”.

They were also “highly effective and rigorous” in identifying risks to children, escalating these where necessary with the local authority. In addition, they worked with “compassion and empathy” with parents, though always with a “resolute focus on the child’s wellbeing”.

The inspection report also praised the high quality of guardians’ reports and their “sensitively evidenced recommendations”, following consideration of all permanence options for the child.

One area for improvement was the quality of final letters sent by guardians to independent reviewing officers at the end of proceedings, which are designed to provide IROs with relevant information to help their ongoing scrutiny of the child’s plan. Ofsted found that while some of these were clear and detailed, “too many lack sufficient detail about the child’s ongoing needs, risks and strengths”.

‘Inspirational’ senior leadership

Ofsted reserved particular praise for Cafcass’s “inspirational, innovative, and extremely child-focused” senior leaders, saying that their ambition to provide an “exceptional experience for every child, everywhere, every time” permeated through the organisation.

It said their introduction of “incredibly child focused” practice and management quality standards had provided staff with a framework that promoted consistently high-quality practice.

The Together for children and families practice framework had “a real focus on what matters most to children” and had been “instrumental in promoting practice that is kind, sensitive and respectful”, with children’s welfare and safety at the forefront.

Leaders had also provided practitioners with “an exceptional range of practice aides”, while Cafcass’s “highly impressive” training offer equipped social workers with the skills to practise well.

The report praised the “significantly improved” management oversight, which was promoting “accountability and consistency of practice”.

This had resulted in part from a boost to management capacity through Cafcass’s creation of a tier of assistant service managers to line manage some FCAs and guardians.

As part of this, the provision of group supervision and situational supervision – which relates to specific concerns that arise in a case – was highly valued by staff in enabling them to reflect on children’s lives.

Workforce and pay concerns

The report also highlighted Cafcass’s health and wellbeing offer, which includes wellbeing days, in addition to annual leave, and access to counselling, and said morale was high across the organisation, with staff feeling “highly valued and extremely well supported”.

However, the report also flagged up the recruitment and retention challenges Cafcass was facing, significantly caused by “the lack of pay parity with local authority salaries”. This was a result of the family court body being tied to civil service pay deals and being unable to offer market supplements, unlike councils.

Though its vacancy rate, at 8% as of last year, was below the 18.9% in local authority children’s services, the organisation’s annual turnover rate – 15.5% in the year to June 2023 – was similar to councils’ (15.9% in the year to September 2023).

In 2023-24, Cafcass staff were given a 4% pay rise, with most also receiving a non-consolidated £1,500 payment, close to the settlement received by council social workers on similar salaries in England.

However, pay rises at Cafcass had lagged behind council settlements in six of the previous seven years.

Ofsted said senior leaders were working with Cafcass’s sponsor government department, the Ministry of Justice, to secure the best possible pay deal for staff within the civil service rules.

However, the report added: “Leaders recognise that without a skilled and committed workforce, the standards of practice that have been achieved will be hard to maintain.”

‘Every single decision for children matters’

In response to the report, Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto thanked staff for “helping secure this important outcome” and said she was particularly pleased that Ofsted had highlighted how practitioners gave “critical and enduring advice to the family court, that centres on children’s safety, welfare and best interests”.

“All our advice and every single decision matters,” she added. “I am so pleased that our focus and ambitions in this regard are making a difference and supporting continuous improvement and change for children.”

She said Cafcass would use the feedback from the inspection to inform implementation of its current improvement plan.

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3 Responses to ‘Consistently high standards’ of social work earns Cafcass across-the-board outstanding rating

  1. Disbelief? April 9, 2024 at 4:45 pm #

    Am I the only reader to feel disbelief about this glowing report from Ofsted?

    I don’t doubt the practitioners and managers have worked hard at cafcass, but to so easily pass over the haemorrhage of workers who have left the organisation over these past few years, leaves me wholly lacking in confidence at the integrity of this report.

    Why would the MOJ pay guardians and fcas more, when clearly everything is ticking by fine, according to this report?

    What about the staff who have left, feeling broken and overwhelmed, their physical and mental health totally shot, due to the toxic combination of low pay, high caseloads, delays in the courts and guardians in some localities being totally despised and ignored by the courts?

    Is that mass exodus, of skilled and talented practitioners, not a significant cause for concern and likely to have a detrimental impact on already vulnerable children?

    Covering up what’s going on already, simply doesn’t help children or the practitioners past and present, to do an effective job. Nothing will ever change if reports like this gloss over the gritty reality of working in an underfunded and overstretched workforce.

  2. Jim Greer April 11, 2024 at 1:26 pm #

    As a Social Work Lecturer I have had students placed with Cafcass and their experience was excellent. I cant report for the whole country but students I have known have had very good experiences.

  3. Pauline O'Reggio April 28, 2024 at 7:21 pm #

    Whiles organisations find it difficult to listen to open and honest feedback from praticisioners working on the front line about what is REALLY happening,nothing will change.Professionals will continue to fear being honest for fear of repercussions,students who are dependant on passing a placement understandably can not be open therefore is it appropriate to expect open feedback from a student .Ask why have professionals employed not openly endorsed the recommendation,does this not say something in its self.

    Children will remain at risk and a blame culture will continue.Whiles only the social worker is the object of blame why would anything change.If all professionals involved are also subject to the same criticism,blame and accountability would there be more open dialogue about the issues faced within the service.?

    My views are not about criticism, I am not an activist but a social worker who is committed to providing strong professional practice which is open and honest, one which highlights the issues which if addressed will protect vulnerable children and the workforce .The work social workers attempt to do is a necessary requirement to keep children safe, however only open honest feedback can demonstrate how hard social workers have to work with limited support and limited understanding of the demands.

    Disbelief your statement is 100% acute.

    Whiles everyone says nothing how can issues be resolved. Issue’s across the board will continue to be ignored.This worrying!!