Arrangements for managing contacts and referrals in the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and thresholds for children in need of help and protection in Northamptonshire have deteriorated, according to Ofsted.
Against a backdrop of recent significant financial uncertainty and changes in leadership at corporate and managerial levels, services considered during the focused visit have significantly declined in the past two years since the single inspection in 2016, the report said.
"This uncertainty has contributed to significant shortfalls in social work capacity across the service, resulting in unmanageable caseloads and high volumes of unallocated and unassessed work. Senior leaders are aware of these serious weaknesses and have taken remedial action to respond," said the report.
Considerable financial instability across the council has led to government intervention and significant challenges in ensuring workforce sufficiency. Changes in leadership at corporate and managerial levels have impacted on leaders’ ability to respond to identified weaknesses.
Consequently, there is considerable variability in the quality of intervention for children. The impact of this means that some children are not consistently or effectively assessed, supported or protected.
The senior leadership team has begun to tackle the identified weaknesses in the service. They have taken some action to strengthen the management arrangements of the MASH and first response teams. A new social care board has very recently been established to focus on the work needed and to ensure sufficient resource in order to support improvements.
However, at the time of the focused visit, 267 children in need of a statutory assessment and social work intervention did not have an allocated social worker and the report highlighted that capacity to allocate children’s cases has been a longstanding problem since the beginning of 2018. The number of unallocated cases has reduced from 551 in January but has "remained stubbornly" between 200 and 300.
When children are referred to the MASH, social workers and managers do not make consistently good decisions regarding thresholds. Not all partners understand or apply thresholds appropriately when making referrals.
Social work caseloads in the first response teams are too high, with many social workers responsible for between 30 and 50 children. Social workers reported to inspectors that they were ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘drowning’. As a result, visits to children are not sufficient, and rushed home visits lead to superficial, weak assessments, which results in delays in providing support.
When children are at immediate risk of harm, most strategy meetings are timely, make the right decisions about next steps and include relevant professionals, although records of these meetings vary in quality.
Furthermore, weak management oversight, supervision and quality assurance processes mean that poor practice goes unchallenged and that children’s needs are left unmet. Performance reporting is not consistently reliable.
"Senior leaders are acutely aware of the negative impact of an unstable workforce on the quality of support to children. They have taken action to review and re-evaluate pay and rewards for staff and to refocus recruitment," said the report. "Although this is a positive move in the right direction, much instability in the workforce remains, and it is made more fragile by an over-reliance on agency workers," the report concludes.