Workloads in social work teams at Wigan have significantly increased as a result of a strategic review of thresholds, Ofsted has noted.
The local authority did not plan ahead effectively to meet these demands and this resulted in high levels of unallocated cases over the course of three months.
Extra resources have now been put in place in response to this increased demand and a wider recruitment strategy is in place with agreed funding. While this response has enabled the local authority to allocate all current work, significant issues remain in terms of the consistent application of thresholds and timely allocation of children’s cases, a focused visit of children's services found.
"Weaknesses are also evident in the responses to children, in terms of the quality of work in assessments of need, partnership-working with the police and timely decision-making in relation to child protection enquiries. This means that children and families are not receiving a timely or consistently good quality of service. For many children, outcomes are delayed, and some children remain at risk or in situations of harm for longer than they should," said the report.
"Poor supervision and ineffective management oversight in many instances mean that progress, or delay in progress, is not always being recognised, and senior managers are less aware of practice quality as a result," it added.
The focused visit looked at the local authority’s arrangements for receiving referrals to children’s services (the front door), making decisions about further action and the undertaking of assessments of need for children and families.
The report highlighted:
- Senior managers have undertaken a review of the operation of thresholds and decisions made at the front door in the last six months. Significant changes have taken place, including a rise in the number of contacts deemed to meet the threshold for referral for statutory services, from 30% to a peak of 70% in this period.
- A review of children in need thresholds, including work in the early help ‘Start Well’ service, has also taken place, which has meant that there are now greater numbers of children and their families who are receiving more appropriate assessments of need from social work teams.
- These changes have meant significantly increased work demands, which the local authority has struggled to respond to.
- The local authority has strengthened its initial response to concerns about children by creating an effective single front door service for both early help and social care needs. Decisions are made on almost all contacts within 24 hours.
- There are delays, sometimes of several weeks, in the police referring concerns to children’s social care when children have been exposed to domestic abuse. The police acknowledge that there is a backlog in the triage and referral of those cases assessed at medium risk, and they are reviewing their response. However, these delays have resulted in children being left in situations of unassessed risk and delays in children and their families accessing services at the earliest opportunity.
- Arrangements for children to be stepped down to the early help ‘Startwell’ service are effective.
- Staff in the assessment duty teams have high caseloads, up to 40 cases, and some state that this is impacting on the quality of their work and their ability to maintain up-to-date records.
- Supervision lacks reflection, critical challenge and clear case direction to improve children’s circumstances.
- Previous poor social work practice has impacted on many cases, including when allocation had previously been delayed or when children’s cases have had to be re-opened and re-evaluated.
- Despite the implementation of a recognised systemic approach to the consideration of children’s needs and risk, in the majority of cases assessments are too focused on parents and carers, and do not identify children’s needs clearly enough.
- The purpose and function of strategy meetings and subsequent child protection enquiries are seriously compromised by poor partnership working between the local authority and Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
- A number of child protection enquiries do not sufficiently analyse historical information and so there is not a full understanding of the child’s situation or a thorough assessment of risk.
- Performance management and quality assurance frameworks are in place. Both have been enhanced since the last focus visit, including better availability of performance reporting for managers and the introduction of thematic audits, which provide a greater insight into overall service quality.
- However, case audits in many cases remain over-optimistic, and some audit gradings are not justified by the auditor’s evidence. There is inconsistency in how audits are completed, with some questions being poorly answered. Key areas are rarely addressed at all, for example whether the ‘right’ plan is in place and whether it is being progressed on a timely basis.
Ofsted recommends that Wigan improves partnership working with the police to ensure that strategy meetings and child protection enquiries are prioritised as soon as possible. Work with the police needs to ensure that the local authority is informed of domestic violence incidents where children are present as soon as possible.
Social worker caseloads need to be reduced to manageable levels to help ensure a more focused and timely delivery of services.
Assessments and plans should have children’s needs as a central focus and should be written in a way that enables parents and carers to better understand the impact of their actions on their children.
Finally, casework audits should focus on the quality of work as well as on compliance with policy, and moderation of audits should be extended to better provide an accurate picture of practice to the local authority.
Focused visit to Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council children’s services