High caseloads and a high turnover of staff have been cited as problems at Buckinghamshire children’s services as it has been rated inadequate by Ofsted.
The high turnover of social workers, high caseloads in some teams and poor recording have all been significant contributory factors to the slow progress of children’s plans, and have led to some children being left at risk and in unsuitable circumstances for too long.
Frequent changes in social workers or visits conducted by rotating duty workers make it hard for children to develop trusting relationships or for social workers to properly understand children’s experiences and circumstances.
“Overall progress in improving services for children in Buckinghamshire since the last inspection in 2014 has been inconsistent and too slow,” said the report. “The strategic response to change has been piecemeal and has not successfully achieved the required wholescale improvements to services for vulnerable children.”
Inspectors highlighted that a failure to recognise or respond promptly to increasing risk and an over-reliance on parents’ own reports of their progress, alongside weak oversight by managers, have led to some children’s cases being closed prematurely. These children are frequently referred to children’s services again when their circumstances deteriorate.
Most children have assessments and plans in place, but the quality of these is inconsistent with some plans being ineffective.
Managers have increased their oversight of social workers’ practice. There is evidence of regular supervision, case discussions and intervention by child protection chairs, independent reviewing officers (IROs) and meetings chaired by heads of services. However, they do not consistently lead to the right actions being taken quickly enough.
Ofsted noted that there has been an appropriate focus on and investment in stabilising the workforce which is beginning to have a positive impact. Social work turnover has been reduced and agency staff are used positively to provide additional social work capacity. Social workers need to be fully supported to attend training.
The report also outlined that senior leaders have worked effectively with their partner agencies at a strategic level to increase the awareness of risks to children who are vulnerable as a result of sexual exploitation. Further work, building on this, is underway to understand and respond to the complex risks that young people face, such as from gangs, ‘county lines’ (children forced to traffic drugs) and radicalisation.
“The recent appointment of an experienced director of children’s services (DCS), chief executive and new cabinet portfolio holder for children’s services, and continued support from the leader of the council, now provide the local authority with a strong senior leadership team that is committed to accelerating the pace of improvements for children. Leaders accepted all the shortfalls found by inspectors during the inspection and the DCS developed an immediate action plan in response to them,” the report concluded.
Cabinet member for Children’s Services at Buckinghamshire Council, Warren Whyte said: “I am extremely disappointed and concerned with the outcome, and the council fully accepts the findings of the report.
“It is clear that some of our services are still not good enough yet and the pace of improvement in some key areas has been too slow. It is our collective responsibility to make sure that we put this right.
“It is important that we do not lose sight of the strengths inspectors highlight and the improvements we have already delivered, and our continued commitment to improve. For example, our adoption services in Buckinghamshire which are judged to be Good. In addition they recognised our efforts to recruit social workers and improvements in our multi-agency safeguarding hub.
“Above all else, my message to the children and families we support is that we remain resolute and determined to improve.
“We are very fortunate in Buckinghamshire to have a committed workforce who understand what we need to do to improve our services and one of our immediate priorities is to guide and support then to improve the services that we offer,” he added.
Ofsted rated adoption services as good, the experience of care leavers was rated as requires improvement to be good and children who need help and protection, children looked-after and leadership were rated as inadequate with an overall rating of inadequate.