After months of bad news and criticism, there was an air of cautious optimism at West Sussex County Council when members met to look at improvements being made to its children’s services.
Four months later and, with a mountain of challenges to be met, the children and young people’s services select committee was given an update on Wednesday (September 11) on the progress of the Children First Improvement Plan.
It’s still very early days for the plan, which was set up to address 12 points for improvement laid down by Ofsted.
It has been sent to the Department for Education and Ofsted for feedback, and committee chairman Paul High said: “It looks like we’re heading in the right direction.”
One of the biggest concerns raised was the workload endured by social workers, which was exacerbated by problems recruiting and keeping staff.
Some staff were responsible for 25-30 cases when the average expected was 15. Others were criticised as being ‘not up to the job’, prompting Unison to accuse the authority of passing the blame for the poor report down the chain of command.
Now though, the meeting was told, the average caseload for experienced staff was 18-22, with new staff working on 12. The aim is to reduce that to 18 and 10 respectively.
Progress has been made in filling social worker vacancies, with a gap of 2 per cent – nine posts – to fill. In February it was 18.5 per cent and in August it was 5.19 per cent.
Paul Marshall, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “It’s an extremely good step – not one we can be complacent about – it’s a real challenge for us.
“We need to demonstrate to all our personnel that we value them, we’ll support them, we recognise the work they do and will continue to give them the best environment in which to deliver good outputs for our children and young people.”
Ofsted will carry out six monitoring visits over the next two years to ensure things are progressing as expected, with the first due to take place on December 3/4.
If the inspectors are not happy, West Sussex could lose control of the services.
It’s a familiar process to Andrew Ireland, the independent chair of the improvement board, who was appointed by the county council shortly before the inspection.
Mr Ireland joined Kent County Council as director of children’s services after that authority was also rated inadequate by Ofsted. He guided the team through the process and left just after it was rated good.
Mr Ireland told the meeting that a key part of his job was to make sure all agencies involved in caring for the children – from the NHS to schools to children’s homes – were ‘fully engaged in the process’.
He added: “The council cannot do this all by itself but other agencies equally can’t do their bit without the council.
“The issue of health assessments for children in care is a classic example. We are dependent on the NHS to deliver that part of the service but they are equally dependent on the council to give them the tools to do the job.”
Mr Ireland acknowledged that all involved were still getting their ‘ducks lined up in rows’ but added: “I’m hoping by the time of the first Ofsted visit we’ll be able to be clear with the inspectors about the areas where they should expect to find improvement from the spring, and those areas where things are being put in place but maybe the full impact will not have been evident by the time early December comes around.
“That will be the case in a number of issues.
“The foot has to be pressed firmly on the gas and there has to be real momentum and real drive exhibited all the way through the service if we’re going to meet this challenge.”
There was good news about one of the council’s children’s homes – Orchard House, in Haywards Heath – which recently underwent its own Ofsted inspection.
Although the results have not yet been published, it was let slip that things had gone extremely well, with John Readman, director of children & family services, saying: “It’s the best possible outcome it could be.”
Mrs Goldsmith added: “Having visited in the summer, I was very, very impressed with the level of care that was demonstrated there. So different from a discussion at last year’s meeting.
“What it shows is that our capability and capacity to improve where we need to is there. With commitment and working together we will achieve and improve these services to a very good standard.”
For many of the vulnerable children who rely on the services, the first port of call for help is often their school – and schools in turn, which don’t have the resources to cope, have been long been calling for help.
Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School, in Horsham, told the meeting that funding for the service was ‘absolutely critical’, and said plans to cut money from some social care programmes was ‘extremely misguided’.
He added: “If you want to improve these things you’ve got to invest – and you can’t do it in the short term and you can’t do it just because there’s a pressurised report. Long-term investment is absolutely critical.
“Everyone understands the financial pressures but providers aren’t really interested in that. We’re interested in having the resources to do our jobs properly and I hope that that will be the highest priority.”
Thanking Mr Readman and his team for the work carried out so far, Mr White said: “We appear to have some of the urgency that we’ve been crying out for a long, long time. Headteachers will try and be as supportive and helpful as possible.”
The committee will receive regular updates on the improvement plan and has asked to receive more data about case-loads and vacancies. It has also asked to hear from front-line staff about their experiences.
Closing the discussion, Mr High said: “It would seem we’re on the right road – it’s going to be a long road, though, as we all know – but it seems to be that we’re in the right direction.”
Mrs Goldsmith added: “I hope that people are reassured by the comments that have been made – that this is a team effort, which is very important, and that the total focus is ensuring that all those children that come into care with us, short or long term, have equal chances and have equal opportunities and are cared for appropriately as you would expect any corporate parent or parent to do.”
Ofsted’s 12 points for improvement
1. The infrastructure and services to support good-quality social work practice, reducing the number of transfer points for children. Clarity regarding the expectations of the workforce, including practice guidance and procedures and the quality of staff induction and training.
2. The quality of social work practice, to assess, support and protect children who experience neglect.
3. The effectiveness of assessment and planning for children in private fostering arrangements and 16- and 17-year-old homeless young people.
4. The quality of plans, particularly in relation to the focus on critical issues for families, time scales for actions and the consideration of what will happen if improvements are not achieved or concerns increase.
5. The quality of social work recording, including the inclusion of intelligence and an analysis of the critical issues for children in return home interview records.
6. Permanence planning for children, including the availability and use of foster-to-adopt placements, timeliness of assessments and planning for unborn babies.
7. The quality and timeliness of life-story work.
8. The quality and regularity of supervision, management oversight, direction and challenge, at all levels.
9. The effectiveness of quality assurance arrangements.
10.Staff recruitment and retention so that children experience fewer social workers.
11.The rigour and impact of corporate parenting arrangements.
12.The active engagement of all relevant partners to tackle weaknesses in services and improve outcomes for children.