Northamptonshire children's services is still 'very fragile' says commissioner in eye-opening report

The children’s commissioner sent in to help turn around Northamptonshire’s failing children’s services has said the service is ‘still very fragile and there remain unacceptable risks in the system’.

By Sarah Ward
Wednesday, 15th May 2019, 12:16 pm
Malcolm Newsam said he found 'chaos' in the department which deals with referrals to social services.
Malcolm Newsam said he found 'chaos' in the department which deals with referrals to social services.

Malcolm Newsam’s report was published by local government secretary James Brokenshire yesterday (March 14) at the same time as he made his long-awaited announcement about creating two new unitary councils for Northamptonshire.

The minister has decided that an independent children’s trust will be set up to look after children in Northamptonshire on the recommendation of the children’s commissioner.

The commissioner’s report outlines what he has discovered since being appointed in November.

It says:

There has been a prevalent culture of complacency within the management of the service and this is also underpinned by a lack of accountability or consequence for poor performance;

the service is still very fragile and there remain unacceptable risks in the system and members and senior leaders will need to demonstrate determined prioritisation and urgency to address these quickly;

there is some considerable way to go before the very basics of professional social work standards are in place in Northamptonshire. Some teams continue to demonstrate poor compliance, and this cannot be adequately explained by the high workloads within the service;

long-standing weaknesses in the approach to attracting and retaining the workforce has caused significant vacancies across the service for vulnerable children. This had been exacerbated by the levels of remuneration for social workers which have been significantly less than many other councils in the region;

the council is presently struggling to recruit either agency or permanent staff to many of its teams, particularly in Northampton, and this leads to constant concerns about unallocated high key work;

the safeguarding service remains constantly challenged by staff departing and experiences constant difficulty in allocating cases swiftly and to an appropriately experienced worker;

The commissioner, who was one of the people sent in to turn around Rotherham children’s services in the wake of the child grooming scandal, was despatched to the Northamptonshire authority after an extremely critical Ofsted report last November.

His report outlines what he initially found.

It says: “Despite the concerns raised by Ofsted, when I arrived at the beginning of December, only 65 per cent of assessments had been completed within 45 days, there were 192 assessments without an allocated worker and 1,024 open assessments. The first response teams were significantly under- resourced and some social workers were carrying in excess of 50 cases. This chaos in the front door presented considerable risk. It was particularly worrying that this situation was still in place almost 12 months after the circumstances that precipitated the serious case review into the death of a two-year old child.

“In December 2018, in the long-term safeguarding teams only 35 per cent of children in need had been visited by a social worker in the previous four weeks and only 59 per cent of children on a child protection plan were visited in the previous four weeks.”

Mr Newsam also discovered when he arrived at the council that of the 328 social workers on the books only 34 per cent were experienced. Twenty-three per cent were in their first year of work and 25 per cent were agency staff. Eighteen per cent of positions were vacant.

Since December the authority has shed more staff and now has 281 social workers, a third of whom are agency staff.

The failings in children’s services by Northamptonshire County Council have been long-standing. In 2013 the authority the service was judged as inadequate.

It was thought to have improved but when Ofsted inspectors arrived last summer they found a number of failings since 2016, including 267 children without an allocated social worker. The referral system was also not working properly and social workers told the inspectors they were ‘drowning in work’.

The commissioner’s report does praise the work of the chief executive Theresa Grant, who took over the running of the authority in the summer and the work she has done to try to make improvements.

He also says it is clear there are ambitions for children’s services to be good and there is a ‘positive, corporate approach to challenges’.