Council downgraded as Ofsted finds unstable workforce leads to variable practice

Mesnes Park in Wigan

Ofsted downgraded a local authority after it found unstable workforces led to inconsistent practices.

Inspectors said Wigan Council had shown some recovery from deteriorating practices after its last inspection in 2017 when it was found to be in good shape, under strengthened leadership.

However, that was not enough to prevent the inspectorate from moving to “needs improvement” in all areas, on the grounds that the quality of practice – heavily criticized in three targeted visits in 2019-20 – remained variable.

He linked this to the stability of the workforce, in particular Wigan’s reliance on substitute social workers, which was a significant issue at the front door.

Here, inspectors found ‘sometimes limited professional curiosity’ from social workers when reviewing basic information in contacts.

Leaders had invested significantly to create 40 new social work posts to reduce the workload – which was criticized as too high in service teams during a targeted visit in January 2020.

Dependence on agency staff

However, following the inspection in May, Ofsted found that Wigan was reliant on four agency social work teams as permanent practitioners were recruited for these additional roles.

“This has led to delays, drift in carrying out plans and frequent changes of social worker for the children,” the inspection report said.

The number of cases, although small, was still too high for some practitioners, including some newly qualified staff in local teams.

Just under a quarter of full-time equivalent social work positions were filled by agency staff in 2020 and 2021, while the authority’s vacancy rate more than quadrupled from 5.7% at 25.4%, from 2019-20, according to figures from the Department for Education (DfE).

While the same figures from the DfE showed turnover fell from 20.6% in 2019-20 to 11.7% in 2020-21, inspectors found that the legacy of past staff turnover had affected the quality of services received by children and that this remained an issue in some areas of practice.

For example, basic social work tasks had not been completed for a minority of children who entered pre-procedure, particularly due to social worker changes, while turnover also resulted in less meaningful visits children cared for by service personnel pending assignment of their case.

Some evaluations “too adult-oriented”

Child and family assessments were of ‘mixed quality’, with some being too adult-focused and reliant on parents’ self-reporting of progress, with limited attention to positive changes for children.

This was also true for the majority of children in need and child protection plans, with involvement ending before practitioners demonstrated lasting changes in families in some cases, and plans drifting without that the impact on children is not fully understood in others.

Reliance on parental self-reporting and a lack of professional curiosity have also characterized Wigan’s response to domestic violence, with families experiencing “multiple contacts, repeated dismissals and reassessments for similar concerns, resulting in a drift and a delay in meeting the needs of children”.

Ofsted has seen some improvement in relation to children in need of help and protection, for example, in Section 47 child protection investigations, the quality of which has been heavily criticized during of the January 2020 targeted visit.

Practice improvements

They were now thorough, considered current and historical risks and included actions clearly identified and carried out in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, practice with children with disabilities had improved since coming under criticism during the October 2020 Targeted Visit, and was now ‘child-centred and individually tailored’.

With regard to the children in care, Ofsted found that the social workers knew them well and that their visits were mostly regular and targeted and that permanency was, generally, considered and timely.

However, life story work was not completed for some children, meaning they may struggle to understand their story, and care plans were not accessible or child-friendly. .

While the reviews were mostly timely and considered the basic needs of the children, in some cases the independent review officers did not offer enough challenge to the drift.

Praise for Physician Assistants by Care Leavers

Care leavers praised the support they received from personal counselors, who they said responded to their requests for emotional and practical support.

The pathway plans were mostly timely and up-to-date, capturing the voices of young people and being sensitive to their identity needs. However, for some young people, the transition out of care was not effective due to a lack of communication and coordination between workers.

Ofsted was generally positive about the direction of Wigan Children’s Services, under Colette Dutton, director since June 2020.

Inspectors said there was now “a clear focus and determination to make the improvements needed for children”, underpinned by “a more accurate self-assessment of the improvement work required”.

Ofsted said Dutton had sought an external challenge, from an industry-led improvement partner and an independently chaired improvement board, which monitored progress against priority areas.

Quality assurance – criticized in all three targeted visits – has improved, with the moderation of audits adding value.

“We know we have more to do”

Responding to the report, Dutton said she was delighted that Ofsted had recognized the improvements Wigan had made.

She added: “We know we have more to do and the inspectors recognized that these additional improvements are in areas we are already aware of through our own performance analysis and robust quality assurance processes. We are confident that our plans will help us provide the best services to our children and families.

“It is also very pleasing that Ofsted has acknowledged that social workers are positive about working in the Borough of Wigan and told inspectors that their managers are visible and supportive and that they like the culture and the practice model.

“The challenges facing children’s services across the country are well documented and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our employees who have shown admirable commitment and dedication to working with our children. most vulnerable during these few truly difficult years. the pandemic.

Michael A. Bynum