Inspectors warn of 'serious' workforce problems at South East council

By Derren Hayes

| 07 August 2018

Serious problems recruiting and retaining children's services staff are resulting in "excessive" workloads among some social workers at a South East council, inspectors have warned.

Ofsted and other inspectorates assessed the multi-agency response to domestic abuse in Medway

A joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) of the multi-agency response to domestic abuse in Medway raised concerns about the impact that persistent workforce challenges faced by the local authority is having on the standard of social care services.

"The local authority faces a significant challenge in recruiting and retaining a sufficiently skilled and stable workforce to ensure that children receive a consistent standard of service," the report states.

"Workforce pressures relating to vacancies, turnover and reliance on temporary agency staff remain serious. Many social workers in assessment teams have high caseloads and, for some, they are excessive.

"These problems mean that it is difficult for children to build a trusting relationship with a single consistent social worker."

Latest Department for Education workforce data shows Medway Council had a children's social worker vacancy rate of 34.7 per cent and turnover of 26.2 per cent on 30 September 2017. The England averages are 17 and 13.6 per cent respectively.

In addition, 29.3 per cent of Medway children's social worker posts were filled by agency staff compared to an England average of 15.8 per cent.

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In response to the recruitment and retention problems in children's services, the council has developed a workforce strategy containing a broad range of measures to recruit and retain "a suitably experienced and capable workforce", the report states.

Inspectors said the strategy - which includes plans to create 10 new social work posts - is "thorough" and "well focused", and "shows a real commitment to tackling this situation at a time of significant pressure on council budgets".

However, the report states that the measures are relatively new and are yet to have a significant impact.

The JTAI assessed how referrals of cases involving children and young people living with domestic abuse were managed, and looked in depth at the effectiveness of services provided by agencies for this vulnerable group.

The inspection, carried out in June by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and HM Inspectorates of Constabulary and Probation, found multi-agency working in Medway to be inconsistent in ensuring children receive services quickly enough with some children being left in situations of unassessed risk.

"Although inspectors met staff who are committed to doing their best for vulnerable children, including those living with domestic abuse, and found that this strong commitment was shared at a strategic level by senior leaders from all agencies, this has not translated into similarly strong services being provided for all children," inspectors concluded. 

A Medway Council spokesperson said: "Like local authorities nationally, we have been affected by the challenge to recruit permanent social workers.

"We value all of our staff and have put measures in place to ensure Medway's social workers are supported, especially those who are newly qualified.

"We introduced a pod structure which gives social workers the opportunity of working closer together and improve the service they are delivering. Our social workers are also supported by a dedicated administrative officer who enables them to focus on their work with children and families. We have also increased the professional development opportunities for social workers in Medway, giving them the chance to attend refresher training and take accredited courses.

"Following our continued efforts to listen to social workers and put measures in place to provide them with the support they need and deserve to carry out their role, we have seen an increase in the number of vacancies being filled in Medway, with our permanent staffing being increased to 75 per cent. We will continue to support our social workers so they are provided with the help and tools they need to best support our most vulnerable families."

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