‘Passionate’ social workers help board achieve outstanding rating, despite workforce challenges

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Social workers who are “passionate and knowledgeable about the needs of children” have helped a board go from “good” to “outstanding” despite “continuing manpower issues”.

In a report last week, Ofsted welcomed Derby Council’s successful implementation of a strengths-based practice model, in the context of Covid-19, to enable practitioners to support children well and improve supervision.

Senior leaders have taken “creative” steps on social worker recruitment and retention to ensure practitioners’ workloads remain “manageable” in a “challenging” work environment, he added.

“Passionate and competent”

Ofsted found the council had made progress on all recommendations from its previous inspection in 2017.

The biggest improvement has been in Derby’s services for children in need of help and protection, which were ‘needs improvement’ in 2017 but ‘remarkable’ in the latest report as inspectors found children were receiving a “constant quality service”.

Ofsted said social workers were “passionate and knowledgeable about the needs of children”. The ‘comprehensive’ assessments captured children’s views and wishes, used family history to identify risks and considered children’s culture and identity, while the plans were also ‘of consistent good quality’ .

This was supported by the practice model, which helped staff ask difficult questions to help parents and children understand why services were involved with them.

Ofsted said staff had “embraced” the model and used it “consistently and effectively to support children”.

New model of practice leading to better supervision

Also calling the leadership exceptional, the inspectors commended senior managers for successfully implementing and embedding the model during the pandemic.

He said the model had “shaped and improved the quality of management oversight and control” and provided clear evidence of rationale for decision-making.

Overall, supervision has been “regular and generally of a good quality, combining managerial direction with opportunities for reflection and individual support”, Ofsted added.

Inspectors also praised leaders for supporting the recruitment and retention of social workers “in a challenging environment”, to ensure that most social workers had manageable workloads.

Derby’s turnover rate for care workers almost doubled, from 8.8% to 15.2%, from 2019-20 to 2020-21, as did its rate for agency workers, from 6.5% to 12 .1%, according to figures from the Ministry of Education.

This brought turnover back to the national average, although Derby’s rate of agency workers remained well below the England-wide rate of 15.5%.

According to the DfE measure – which is controversial with practitioners – Derby’s average number of cases rose slightly from 17.4 to 18.3, between 2020 and 2021, above the national average of 16.3 .

Leaders “accessible and supportive”

Inspectors also said social workers consistently reported that senior staff and managers were accessible, supportive and eager to hear their views on how services could be improved. Staff also appreciated the council’s offering of continuing professional development, including a series of lunchtime learning events.

The only area not rated as outstanding was child in care and outgoing care, which retained the strong Derby rating achieved in 2017.

As with children in need of help and protection, inspectors said the assessments were comprehensive and praised the quality of care planning, as well as monitoring by independent monitors.

Social workers regularly visit the children, helping to build relationships of trust. However, some children said they had changed practitioners too much and had to repeat their stories.

While some children have benefited from good quality life history work, not all have, although the report noted that senior leaders have invested in this area, including hiring a practitioner to help social workers carry it out.

Insufficient care placements

Ofsted found that children who needed ongoing care lived with carers who met their needs and most made good progress.

However, he said there were not enough placement options for children who needed care, and that sufficiency was “an ongoing challenge”.

‘This means that some children live outside Derby, resulting in school changes and more complex arrangements around family time,’ its report says.

He said there was still an overall shortage of host families in Derby, but numbers were increasing following targeted recruitment campaigns.

Regarding care leavers, Ofsted praised the “passionate” and “committed” personal advisers, who invested in building strong relationships that made young people feel valued.

Andy Smith, Strategic Director of People Services at Derby, said: “Our staff are dedicated to achieving the best outcomes for Derby’s children and work incredibly hard in what is hard, but ultimately rewarding work.

“To be rated exceptional is a real achievement and a testament to their passion and hard work. We’ve come a long way in five years, but we know there’s still work to be done to be even better, and we have plans in place for that.

Michael A. Bynum