An independent commissioner has recommended that Croydon’s crisis-hit children’s services department needs outside help, after failures of leadership and management. WALTER CRONXITE reports
Pressure continues to mount on Tony Newman, the council leader, after the Department for Education last night released their commissioner’s report which confirmed that Croydon children’s services is failing and inadequate, and that managers from another council need to be called in to oversee improvements over the next 12 months.
Eleanor Brazil was appointed as a commissioner to review Croydon by the DfE last September, after an inspection by Ofsted during the summer found the council’s children’s services provision to be inadequate, in some cases dangerously so.
In her report to the DfE, Brazil said: “At this time, I believe the council should retain responsibility for managing children services and should be given time to drive the improvements forward.
“However, I do not consider that they have the necessary capacity and expertise within the service, to undertake this effectively and quickly without support.”
And in a directive issued yesterday, the DfE has ordered Croydon to allow social work managers from Camden Council to oversee the children’s services work, which is responsible for the care and support of some of the borough’s most vulnerable youngsters, including those in care, or fostered, and the large number of unaccompanied asylum seekers in the borough.Brazil’s report was delivered to the DfE in early December. It repeatedly refers to the almost delusional approach of senior figures at Croydon Council over the deteriorating state of the children’ services department.
“It is clear that the outcome of the inspection was a shock to the leadership of the council,” Brazil notes on one occasion.
She refers to a Town Hall report from Alisa Flemming, the council cabinet member responsible for children, in July 2017, around the same time that the Ofsted inspection was being carried out in Croydon.
Flemming’s report then stated that implementation of a plan “…over the last six months has led to improvement in the effectiveness of referrals and timeliness of decision-making. The transformation of children’s social care is also expected to deliver further improvement in outcomes for vulnerable children”.
Brazil notes, with withering understatement, “Given the findings of the inspection that was taking place at the same time, this was a considerably over-optimistic view of the current situation.”
And elsewhere, Brazil writes, “The scale of the challenge is just beginning to be understood.”
But is it?
Newman and Flemming had sight of Brazil’s report a month ago. Newman responded to it at the time by claiming that the commissioner had “confidence in our direction”. A council press release, which this morning was still on the website, was headlined: “Minister expresses confidence in Croydon Council’s ability to drive improvements in children’s services”.
And earlier this week, the previously “over-optimistic” Flemming was again telling a meeting in the Town Hall chamber that another Ofsted inspection had “recognised great leaps of progress”.
That’s certainly not the commissioner’s view, nor that of the Secretary of State, who has issued the directive ordering in officials from Camden.
In her report, Brazil notes that, following the Ofsted report, more than £2million in emergency funding has been added to the children’s services budget to help recruit and retain more social workers, and that a further £10million has been added to the department’s budget for this year.
“The scale of the challenge is such that it is likely that it will take a period of at least 18 months to two years to bring about the degree of change needed in all aspects of service delivery,” Brazil’s report says.
“Croydon is just at the beginning of a comprehensive improvement programme, and will need to sustain the commitment and focus over this period of time and beyond if improvements are to be embedded and sustained.”
In the DfE’s directive, Newman and Jo Negrini, the council chief exec, have been instructed, “To work with Camden Council to develop a proposal for intensive peer support over a minimum of a 12-month period and submit that proposal to the Secretary of State by the end of March 2018.”
The directive is similar to one issued previously to neighbouring Bromley where (ominously for Newman) the leader of the council was forced to resign when insufficient improvements were made in that Tory-run local authority’s children’s services department.
The timetable is also less-than-good for the increasingly irascible Newman, with the deadline for the 12-month improvement plan to be delivered coming just four weeks before the Town Hall elections.
During her time in Croydon, as she compiled her report, Brazil examined earlier inspection findings, both internal and those conducted by external agencies, for the period after the previous “satisfactory” Ofsted visit in 2012.
“All of the background reports raise similar issues about the quality of practice,” she writes. It is possible to infer from this that Brazil believes that the decline in standards of service really ought not to have come as a surprise to those involved – and certainly not to someone who had held cabinet responsibility for children’s services for more than three years.
“An Improvement Plan was developed in February 2017, but the pace of improvement was slow. Limited management capacity and expertise, insufficient infrastructure support, plus the extent of the issues across the service will have reduced the potential impact,” Brazil writes. You don’t implement an improvement plan if everything is working properly.
Of all the politicians and council officials involved, it is Negrini who possibly emerges from the Brazil report with some credit. “Once the scale of the problem was understood, the chief executive acted quickly to bring in capacity and expertise,” Brazil writes, highlighting hirings made since September.
Given the amount of additional funding that has been needed to help address the excessive caseloads facing the borough’s stressed social workers, Brazil seems to indicate, strongly, that the council had probably made too many cuts to its staff in recent years. “Croydon at
the time,” she notes, with a touch more understatement, “had a very lean management structure.”
And even where there is a budget for staff, the recruitment and retention of experienced social workers is an on-going problem. Brazil says that across the service, nearly 1 in every 6 jobs is vacant, though in one area of children’s services the vacancy rate is more than 1 in 3.
“Whilst there are some good social workers and managers in Croydon delivering a good response to children and families, too often this is not the case. The quality of practice is inconsistent and not good enough,” she writes.
“Many of the managers are relatively inexperienced in their roles and managers and front-line staff describe a social work workforce that needs higher degrees of support because of high proportions of newly qualified staff and a high turnover of both permanent and agency staff.”
The Croydon tram crash, in November 2016, and the French government’s clearance of “The Jungle” camp at Calais around the same time added pressures on Croydon’s already over-stretched social services, Brazil says. As well as dealing with the grief and turmoil in the aftermath of the crash, Croydon’s social workers had a leading role in dealing with the sudden increase in unaccompanied asylum seekers coming to Britain from France.
But overall, Brazil is clear that Croydon’s crisis in children’s services had arisen because of a failure of leadership, both at the Town Hall and in the council offices. Ofsted’s inspectors, she writes, “… considered that the serious and widespread issues across the service had not been fully understood by elected members or senior managers until the inspection and this corporate failure had led to a lack of prioritisation and timely action. This resulted in too many children remaining at risk of escalating or actual harm characterised by drift and delay”.
And she adds, “Senior managers have not created good conditions in which social workers can flourish. A number of social workers told inspectors that they are not clear about what they need to do.”
Brazil’s report, and the DfE directive, was distributed to all three of the borough’s MPs last night. Neither Sarah Jones nor Steve Reed OBE have made any comment on the report now it is in the public domain. Nor has Croydon Council published the report on its website.
But Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, couldn’t resist an opportunity for a bit of political point-scoring on his website: “It is very disappointing to see that the commissioner has had to report to the Secretary of State that ‘the Council is still failing to perform to an adequate standard’.
“Sadly the current council leadership has been deemed incapable of fixing the problem and the council has therefore been directed to work with Camden Council, which has a ‘good’ Ofsted rating, to develop a plan to sort out the very serious management failures.
“I very much hope that Croydon Council will find Camden’s expertise and support helpful in making significant progress with really getting to grips with the service failures and that the next report will have much more positive news.”
Others remain astonished that the likes of Flemming or Barbara Peacock, the executive director for People at the council, have managed to remain in their posts after presiding over such a long-running shambles.
As one concerned parent told Inside Croydon after seeing the commissioner’s report, “I don’t understand, or have much faith in, a report that seems to come to the conclusion that Croydon does not have sufficient capacity to improve, but should still keep control of children’s services.
“This review seems set to become another missed opportunity to make vital improvements.”
Newman, the £50,000-plus per year council leader, failed to respond to our questions.
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