Workforce challenges ‘more urgent than ever’ with many children not getting vital social care – Ofsted

Vulnerable children are going without vital support because there are not enough social workers or appropriate homes to meet their needs, a regulator has warned.

Problems in recruiting and keeping staff is the “greatest challenge” facing children’s social care in England, Ofsted said.

Many residential care workers have “reassessed their priorities” and work-life balance during the coronavirus pandemic and have left the sector, it said, while a “large number” of social workers are quitting demanding jobs for better-paid, more flexible agency positions or for roles in other sectors.

Providers are also struggling to recruit children’s home managers, with 17% of homes without a manager as of March 2022 – up from 9% in March 2019.

Staffing challenges mean children lack stability or are being placed in homes where their needs are not being met, and in some cases are being placed in unregistered homes, the regulator said.

Some providers have been forced to reduce capacity, and some homes run by the largest providers are empty or closing temporarily, Ofsted added.

Its latest report examined the issues children’s social care is facing as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

The regulator also said that councils expect there will be more vulnerable children at risk of harm, with families coming under increasing financial strain during the cost-of-living crisis.

Some local authorities told Ofsted they expect higher numbers of child protection cases and children in need, and have budgeted for this.

Other issues identified by the report include:

  • A risk of a delay in identifying some vulnerable babies and children, with family support services that were disrupted during the pandemic still not running at previous levels in some areas.
  • Disabled children and families may need more intensive support, with many services closed during the pandemic and yet to return to normal.
  • A widening of pre-existing gaps in inpatient and community-based services for children with mental health needs, and needs becoming more complex.
  • A lack of suitable places for children in foster homes, children’s homes and secure homes.
  • An apparent increase in the number of children being electively home-educated, which increases the risks for those already at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation as they are less visible to school staff.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman (pictured) said: “Children’s social care has been plagued by workforce challenges for some time.

“But we have seen these issues accelerate in recent years, with more social workers moving to agency contracts, and residential workers leaving the sector entirely.

“As a result, too many children, with increasingly complex needs, are not getting the help they need. A workforce strategy and improved support for disabled children and those with mental health needs and their families are more urgent than ever.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “All children and young people deserve to grow up in stable, loving homes.

“That’s why we are providing an unprecedented £259 million to maintain capacity and expand provision in secure and open children’s homes, and are raising standards for children in care.

“This comes ahead of widescale reform to the care system through our response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

“Our work includes improving the support social workers receive in the early part of their careers, particularly to enhance their skills and knowledge in child protection.”

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