UNDER-PRESSURE council chiefs have instigated a "series" of mock inspections of Worcestershire's child protection services, it has emerged.

Worcestershire County Council, which is battling to deal with the implications of record numbers of children in care, is preparing for an Ofsted inspection due any time soon.

It was March 2012 the last time its children's social care services were examined by the watchdog, when a damning improvement notice dating back to 2010 was lifted.

More than four years on, the numbers of looked-after children have continued to rise, standing at around 716 youngsters, with the council having to increase its budget by more than £10 million since 2010 to cope.

Diane Partridge, assistant director for safeguarding at County Hall, says serious concentration is going towards gearing up for a new inspection.

But she has also warned that more improvements "can only be achieved" by focusing relentlessly on freeing up staff to produce better assessments.

In June last year, as a way of preparing for a possible Ofsted inspection the council asked for a voluntary 'peer review' to be done where people working in the field gave their views on the service.

At the time the severe pressure on Worcestershire's children's social care staff was raised as an issue, with crucial work often compromised due to "inexperience or high workloads".

A new report out this month has revealed how 71 per cent of child assessments were being done within 45 working days in March this year, compared to 54 per cent during the same period last year.

The report, for the attention of the children and families overview and scrutiny panel, said improvements in the service were down to "relentless direct management oversight" but insisted the council needed to "reduce caseloads further".

Mrs Partridge said: "We have seen a plateau in performance, and further improvements can only be achieved by creating the conditions for social workers to work more effectively.

"One of our key challenges is to shift the 'placement spend' into more prevention support - work is underway on that."

She also said the ongoing efforts to recruit more children's social care workers was paying off, with a new campaign due to be launched on it soon.

The council has around 150 front line children's social care workers and around 83 per cent of them are in-house, permanent staff and the rest from agencies.

"Some local authorities have 50 per cent of their workforce, at times, from agencies so we're not badly positioned compared to that," she said.

"The challenge is to get it to 100 per cent because we know that's where the quality comes from," she said.

Councillor Simon Geraghty, the council's leader, recently spent a day on the frontline with social care workers to get a handle on the pressures they are under.