Council bosses have drafted in a former director from another authority to add “oomph” to children’s services following a watchdog’s call for improvements.
Stockton Council is acting to strengthen its children’s services following criticisms from inspectors, staffing problems and rising numbers of cases. The council was told by Ofsted it needed to take swift and decisive action last October to tackle “areas of weakness and delay for children at its front door”, including decision making, management, supervision, allocating cases and pinpointing risk and need.
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The watchdog criticised the council for poor assessments, cases closed too soon and investigations described as “not thorough”. It said in its report: “Children are not receiving help and support when they need it.”
Martin Gray, director of children’s services, said Ofsted’s report was “less positive” than a previous report in January 2022 which praised services for vulnerable children with social workers hailed as “committed, skilled and dedicated”. He presented the council’s response to the latest conclusions to the council’s children and young people select committee.
This included bringing in an independent advisor, brokered through the Department for Education, to help make improvements and chair a “good and beyond board”. The advisor is an ex-director of children’s services from Telford and Wrekin Council.
Mr Gray said: “We’ve brought in somebody to give us a bit more oomph and a bit more focus and a bit more external challenge and support around what we’re trying to do. We’ve got a clear plan.
“There’s a new inspection regime around special educational needs and disability which is just starting this year. There will be some focused visits and some deep dives and more tracking of young people’s progress through the system, and I think we’re well placed under that.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure we are prepared for the new regime. We’ve got Ofsted back in with us this week and next week looking at our social care system as well.”
His report outlined improvement measures taken like appointing new managers, recruiting a short-term team of agency staff to pick up cases and clear the backlog, new processes, workshops, performance management meetings and changes to documents to make things clearer.
He said they were recruiting new social workers, taking on high-calibre apprentices and “beefing up” training and support but had struggled to fill some posts. He outlined other work involving family hubs, youth work, a youth investment fund, schools, health, safeguarding, special educational needs and inclusion, partnerships and reaching the most vulnerable.
He added: “We’ve got an enormous offer and it’s continued to evolve and we’ve got some good progress from a lot of that stuff. We’ve got lots of innovation going on.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make the system work effectively together. We’ve got all the component parts but they’re not necessarily singing together and all on the same page.
“We have updated and refreshed all of the key systems that we use across children’s services over the last few years, which is quite a big task for the social care system.
“We’ve constantly got to keep moving and challenging. There’s turnover of people, there’s huge stuff going on nationally at the moment around the national care review.
“There’s some real challenges around the care system, we face a similar position ourselves. There’s a huge amount of work around special educational needs as well, where the whole system’s being ripped up and redesigned over the next couple of years nationally so we can’t afford to stand still and we always need to continue to improve.”
Ofsted’s report from last October called for improvements to areas including delays in assessing children’s needs and protection, premature case closures, analysing information about children, inspecting case file and working with other organisations.
It said: “While immediate safeguarding concerns are identified and responded to swiftly, a significant number of children in need of assessment and support are currently unallocated due to a lack of social work capacity. Front door services are under significant pressure from increasing volumes of referrals.
“There is a timely and effective response when children need immediate protection,” says the Ofsted report. But it goes on to say: “Subsequent child protection enquires and investigations are not thorough.”
It noted 80 children were waiting to be allocated to a social worker when the two inspectors visited in September 2022. It added: “Assessments seen during the visit were mostly poor… The child’s voice is absent in many assessments seen during the visit, as is an understanding of the child’s lived experience.
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“Front-line management oversight has been weak, and social work turnover has been high for several months. While these issues have recently been addressed, this has had a significant impact on the quality of children’s experiences and has led to delays in children receiving help, protection and support when it is needed.
“Senior leaders have an accurate understanding of the weakness in the service area. However, improvements are not being implemented with sufficient pace.”