A four-day review of children’s social care in Cambridgeshire has concluded that three of the four areas of the service provided by the county council have fallen from good to ‘requires improvement’.
Ofsted made an unannounced inspection in January and warned the county council it must improve the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection, including young people in care or leaving care.
They described the overall effectiveness of the service as ‘requires improvement’ and paint a picture of social workers struggling with case loads that are too high.
Only when it came to ‘impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families’ did the council receive a good rating.
Ofsted said they found some children had overdue social worker visits or worse, were cancelled at the last minute.
Some children felt their underlying problems, feelings and wishes were not properly explored, inspectors said.
Yet despite the damning report, council leader Steve Count praised progress.
“Children’s services are a high priority for me personally as leader,” he said. “It gives me great confidence that Ofsted have given us an independent vote of confidence that the changes and investment we have made will deliver the improvements needed.”
Inspectors found an inconsistent postcode lottery with a “significant minority” who don’t get support quickly enough.
Inspector Dominic Stevens said: “The most significant challenge to the local authority’s ability to provide consistently good services to children, young people and their families has been, and continues to be, the size of case loads.
“These are too high for most social workers and unsustainable in some teams.”
And although the local authority has made progress by employing extra staff this “needs to be sustained and built on before most children receive a consistently good service,” he said.
“Too often social workers and frontline managers have to focus on the most urgent and important work to secure children’s immediate safety, without sufficient capacity for the follow up work needed.”
For some children “the local authority is not making the positive difference it could and should,” his report adds.
Lib Dem county councillor Lucy Nethsingha said: “The facts are that Ofsted have down-graded county council children’s services from ‘good’ in 2014, to ‘requires improvement’ in 2019.
“It is a clear sign that the quality of children’s services has moved in the wrong direction in recent years.”
She said there were additional pressures on social workers with the massive reduction in children centres, cuts to early help services and removal of locality teams.
And there were a rising number of children coming into care in the county.
“It is now significantly above the national average, while a few years ago it was significantly below the national average,” she said.
“With early help services having taken massive cuts, social care services are under huge pressure, and as the Ofsted report makes clear social worker case loads are far too high.”
Also put under the spotlight was the quality of management supervision, the effectiveness of arrangements to promote health and education and the relatively high numbers of children missing education.
Mr Stevens said: “Too many assessments take longer than they should and do not fully explore underlying problems or the wishes and feelings of children.
“Significant workload pressures in teams across the county mean that there is much variability in who gets what help and support as well as in its effectiveness.
“For some children, visits were overdue or cancelled at the last minute and assessments were not completed in time scales that match children’s needs.”
Work is often of a higher standard in teams with lower case loads, the report says, and notes that work with disabled children is of a good standard.
Steps to prepare children in care for independence is not strong, the report concludes, and most pathways no not help with this, because plans are not completed in partnership with young people.