The pace of change at Durham children’s services has been hindered since the last inspection in 2016.
High staff turnover and increased demand for services have resulted in increased caseloads which, coupled with an outdated electronic system, has hindered the pace of change required since the local authority was judged as requires improvement to be good overall in 2016.
“There has been appropriate financial commitment from the council and a service restructure to support the improvements needed. Appropriately focused improvement plans are firmly in place to address the shortfalls and they are starting to have an impact,” said the report.
“Improving practice has been seen since August in relation to the identification of risk, timeliness of assessments, stability in the workforce, and performance management,” it added.
The report warned that vulnerabilities remain in relation to delays in decision-making for some children. This is in part due to caseloads remaining high in some teams and inconsistencies in how cases requiring a social work assessment within duty teams are allocated.
Management oversight and direction are not as sharply focused as they could be, and children’s experiences are not consistently well recorded. This is not supporting accountability, effective planning for children, monitoring or challenge.
In the focused visit to Durham children’s services, inspectors looked at the local authority’s arrangements for children in need and those subject to a child protection plan.
Senior leaders know themselves well and have clear and appropriately targeted action plans in place to address shortfalls.
A model of social work practice is being implemented and staff have been trained to strengthen the analysis of risk within assessments.
The recruitment and retention of workers is being prioritised by the council to reduce caseloads, and a commitment has been made to establishing caseloads of 20 per worker.
In the majority of cases sampled, work was being managed at the right level of intervention.
Assessment timescales are showing recent signs of improvement.
However, caseloads remain high in some teams and this has had an impact on the timely allocation of work and on the progression of plans. In response to pressures in the short term, additional agency workers and an additional team of workers have been employed to work with the backlog of cases, and this is now much reduced.
The quality of assessments is not consistently good, although some good practice was seen. Children’s plans are not yet of a good enough quality for all children, the report said.
“Social workers report that they receive regular supervision, but this is not consistently recorded or evidenced on children’s files. On the whole, staff were positive about working for the service and were looking forward to further changes to the electronic system and the full implementation of the new model of practice. However, understandably for some staff, morale is lower where caseloads remain higher,” the report concluded.
Ofsted recommended that Durham addresses the consistency of allocation of cases awaiting social work assessment. The recording of the rationale for case decisions, and management direction needs work.
Durham should look at the reduction in delay for children at key threshold points to support a timely social work response, the quality of planning and social work plans and the recording of children’s experiences in order to support accountability, effective planning, monitoring and challenge.