Children’s social services: impressive despite circumstances

It’s official: Council-run children’s social services departments in England are performing well, in general.

Ofsted has published its 2009 children’s services ratings and revealed that 68% of the 152 councils are performing ‘excellently’ or ‘well’, while another 25% are ‘adequate’.

Only 9 councils – 6% – are judged to be ‘poor’, including Haringey, which neatly avoids another media storm over Baby P.

While the media, inevitably, has thus far focused on the poorly performing councils, it could be argued that it is surprising that more children’s services departments are not failing.

Take Birmingham, for example, one of the councils deemed ‘poor’, much to their chagrin. There, about a fifth of the 722 posts in children’s services were unfulfilled, and absenteeism ran at 25 days per person, according to a report in the Birmingham Post. After some quick calculations in the office on the back of a Post-it, we worked out that about a third of the workforce was missing. Those that were present were dealing with 800 child abuse cases a month, so it’s no wonder the department was at breaking point.

While measures are now in place to improve matters in Birmingham, I doubt that its situation is unique. Nationally, vacancy levels are running at 9.5% of frontline posts in children and families teams, with 9.6% annual turnover of employees, according to the interim report by the Social Work Task Force. Sickness levels are also high – an average of 12 days per social worker – which is 60% more than the national average, according to a recent report in The Independent.

Combine that with rising levels of referrals – the dual effects of Baby P and the recession – and you have to marvel that more children’s services departments aren’t failing and there aren’t more Baby P’s.

It also serves to make Ofsted’s findings look all the more impressive, especially as chief inspector Christine Gilbert claims these inspections were tougher than those in previous years.

It just shows what a good job the majority of social workers do under increasingly difficult circumstances, and should be cause for celebration.

While there is still much work to do to improve services – and the lot of the social worker – it needs to be recognised that a good job is being done in the vast majority of cases.

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