Ofsted criticises council where social workers report ‘unmanageable’ caseloads

Inspectors said services in Reading had made “little progress” in improving social work with children and families since it was rated ‘inadequate’ in 2016, and too many children were repeatedly placed on child protection plans, while some were stepped down from plans too quickly.

It found team managers were holding child in need cases, but they were unable to visit the children and families.

‘Lowering threshold’

In the previous inspection, also in the area of help and protection but focusing on the early help services, single point of access and the quality of social work practice in the advice and assessment services, the service was praised for “substantial” and “purposeful” progress.

However, the picture had changed between then and the most recent inspection, which focused on the work of safeguarding and disability teams, with inspectors lamenting ‘uneven and overall slow progress’.

“The previous monitoring visit assessed threshold decision-making at the single point of access as largely reliable, but a recent auditing programme in the service appears to have resulted in a lowering of the threshold, resulting in a greater number of referrals inappropriately proceeding to statutory assessments,” the report found.

It added that internal thresholds and gateway management were “confused and inconsistent”, which meant children were not offered appropriate help and support.

The workforce situation in Reading was “turbulent”, Ofsted said, and three senior managers had “abruptly left in quick succession”. This turbulence was identified as a core factor in the “weak standard of social work”.

“Caseload pressures and numbers in the safeguarding teams are high and some social workers reported that their workloads are unmanageable,” the report said.

It added: “Home visit recordings by social workers were often unfocused, and conversations and observations of children hurried and superficial. Management supervision rarely highlights children’s experiences and the extent to which social workers are able to develop constructive, trusting relationships with them.”

‘Dominant case management approach’

Ofsted added plans for children in need and on child protection plans did not illustrate how social workers would use their own professional direct work skills in their visits to families.

“This leads to a dominant case management approach by many social workers and their case supervisors, where the impact of interventions in primarily measured by the take up of services rather than a careful evaluation of improvements in children’s circumstances.”

Some “conscientious and industrious managers” were struggling to provide rigorous and secure management oversight.

The council announced last year it would move the children’s services into a council-owned community interest company to deliver children’s services, yet this is not set to be up and running until September 2018.

Peter Sloman, chief executive of Reading council, apologised that the service was not improving as quickly as it would like.

He added: “The council acknowledges and accepts the findings of this report. The Ofsted review visit has confirmed our understanding about the pressures our hard-working social workers are under and the potential impact that has on children who depend on us. We are redoubling our efforts to recruit more experienced social workers to expand the resources available to tackle this problem.”