Praise for council's children's services but review says there's no magic bullet for financial woes

A family hub for young children in Grangetown operated by Redcar and Cleveland Council
A family hub for young children in Grangetown operated by Redcar and Cleveland Council -Credit:Stuart Boulton/RCBC

A ‘peer challenge’ which considered how efficiently children and family services are delivered in Redcar and Cleveland has said there is no silver bullet which can solve continued financial pressures.

The review, commissioned by Redcar and Cleveland Council and organised by the Local Government Association, made a number of recommendations, but also praised many aspects of the council’s work. It saw senior officials from outside of the area spend three days at the council last November, meeting more than 70 staff working within the children and families directorate and also reviewing 40 ongoing child cases and evidence such as Ofsted reports.

A report for the council’s cabinet said the process “presented an opportunity to seek an external perspective on services provided and to see if anything could be learned from elsewhere to support the most efficient use of resources”.

Redcar and Cleveland, like many other local councils, is grappling with increased demand to look after children requiring care, many having complex needs who require specialist support. It has been predicted there will be a £10.5m overspend by the directorate against budget at the end of the 2023/24 financial year, a further increase on a previous forecast.

The number of children in care is said to have risen by about 28% in the past three years with 43 residential placements each costing an average of £350,000 annually. The report stated: “The council is having to strike a very difficult balance between providing child centred services, with the volumes, costs and complexity of work relating to children and young people increasing significantly, which has the potential to impact the future financial sustainability of the organisation.”

The review said there "did not appear to be a single silver bullet” to fix the financial issues, but made 24 recommendations with an action plan subsequently put in place by the council in response. The recommendations included developing an “overarching ambitious strategy and plan” for the department to assist in identifying priorities.

The council should continue to work with schools to boost levels of inclusion and a multi-agency child exploitation strategy be drawn up. Systems should be strengthened so that opportunities for children and young people to exit the care system were taken in a more timely manner and they did not remain within it longer than necessary.

The council could also explore joining with other local authorities to commission some services on a sub-regional basis where this was mutually beneficial.

The peer challenge - described as a “critical friend” approach - said a commissioning team responsible for arranging care placements was effective, but under “considerable pressure”, lacking sufficient capacity and not always able to provide effective contract management and to quality assure provision. Sufficient strategic commissioning resources were needed to effectively manage the market and better contain rising costs.

The review said a “highly committed, enthusiastic and skilled” workforce were employed by the council, which had also taken positive steps to deal with challenges in recruiting social workers, including the introduction of a social work academy. Children’s services functioned strongly as a whole, with evidence of collaborative working to achieve good outcomes.

Meanwhile, home to school transport policies were deemed “fit for purpose” with adherence to statutory requirements tightly controlled. However the review said: “SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) growth has not been matched by budget growth in this area, and savings have not been delivered, therefore budget realignment is needed.”

Savings targets also needed to be “robust and evidence based” so they stood a better chance of being achieved in a timely manner.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, council leader Alec Brown said inviting challenge "wasn't easy". He also said children's services were massively underfunded with many young people "in dire need of help".

Children’s services in Redcar and Cleveland were graded by Ofsted as ‘requiring improvement to be good’ following the publication of a report in September 2022. However the results of a focused visit published last August said senior leaders had responded swiftly to the areas flagged for improvement.

It was also confirmed in January that Kathryn Boulton, the executive director for children and families at the council, who has been in post since 2019, would leave the authority at the end of June in order to take early retirement. She said she was proud of what had been achieved for children and families during her tenure and confident that the progress being made will continue.

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