Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on the latest, critical Ofsted report on the council children’s services department, which has 78% vacancy rate among some of its social work teams
Croydon Council could be forced to seek an extension to the period of special measures for its “inadequate” children services department, sources in Katharine Street suggest.
The latest visit by Ofsted inspectors took place last month and found continuing problems for the council in recruiting and retaining experienced social workers.
The inspectors described the level of care for “a small number of children” as “very poor”, with the conduct of some aspects of the department’s work remaining “stubbornly weak in many cases”.
The council’s children’s services department is supposed to oversee fostering and adoptions in the borough, and to monitor and safeguard at-risk children and those in care. After an inspection in July 2017, Croydon’s children’s services department was placed in special measures following the publication of a damning Ofsted inspectors’ report which said that it exhibited “widespread and serious failures”, which left “some children at risk of significant harm”.
Ofsted this week released its latest update report, the fifth since that original inspection.
This time, it included the observation that, “For a small number of children, the service continues to be very poor.
“Some aspects of practice, such as the quality of plans for children, case recording, including written evidence of decision-making, and the frequency and quality of supervision and management oversight, remain stubbornly weak in many cases.”
Elsewhere in the report, the inspectors noted that the “very poor” service “… is compounded by staff turnover, which impacts on the quality of the social work relationship”.
The council’s own press release announcing the latest Ofsted report was headlined “Services for children in Croydon continue to improve”.
Seriously, and without any hint of embarrassment.
The press release failed to mention the inspectors’ “very poor” or “stubbornly weak” findings. But then, the council and its leadership have tried very hard not to mention any of the most troubling findings about the quality of work by council staff and management.
Indeed, the council statement released to the media quoted Alisa Flemming, the Labour-run council’s hapless cabinet member for failing children’s services, selective schools and apologies, as describing the latest Ofsted report as, “very encouraging”.
Time may be running out for the easily encouraged Flemming, though.
When a council’s children’s services department is placed in special measures, it would usually get at least six follow-up monitoring visits over the course of two years, before the next full inspection. Croydon’s children’s services next full Ofsted inspection, therefore, might usually be expected at some point in the second half of this year.
The council is now on its third set of directors and executives since the original, “damning”, Ofsted report just 18 months ago. Barbara Peacock, the £150,000 per year exec who was put in charge of the council’s children’s services and education department by CEO Jo Negrini and who was in charge of the department when the Ofsted inspectors originally visited, left her job somewhat abruptly early in 2018.
Temporary, interim appointees have since come and gone. Since late December the department has been headed by executive director Robert Henderson and Nick Pendry.
And at a scrutiny committee meeting this week, Henderson was frank enough to admit that the recruitment of social workers is a massive problem for his department.
One of his teams has a vacancy rate of 78 per cent – effectively, just one member of staff for every five jobs.
Many other social work teams were understrength by between one-third and nearly one-half of their established workforce, something Henderson described as “extrememly worrying”.
After years of staff cut-backs to the social work teams, under Labour as well as Tory council administrations, following the children’s services’ “inadequate” rating in September 2017, nearly 40 additional council jobs have been created in the department to try to deal with the problems raised and the high volume of work.
Croydon has about 800 looked-after children in its care. Because the Home Office’s immigration offices are located in the borough, Croydon has a much higher number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children requiring help and supervision.
In his remarks to the committee of councillors this week, Henderson suggested that some of the council’s staff who had been recruited in the past were perhaps not always as experienced or well-qualified as they might be. “We are concerned about the number of staff leaving, some of that is desired, some of that isn’t, and where it isn’t we are having exit interviews,” he said.
“It is an ongoing issue but we are hoping and expecting to see that improve and if it doesn’t we would be extremely worried.
“We are also making sure that we are looking at the areas where team management isn’t good enough and addressing that head on. One of the common themes is that social workers don’t feel supported enough by their managers,” he said.
In the past year, since the Ofsted inspection, social workers’ individual caseloads have been much-reduced, to around 12 per staff member. “The staff are saying that even though the case loads are quite low, the cases are quite demanding and stressful,” he said.
“Being inadequate and having Ofsted visits which constantly tell you you’re still not very good does deplete staff and make morale very low,” said Henderson.
When giving evidence to the scrutiny committee, Henderson will have already seen the latest Ofsted report, which was released the following day. He must have gauged that morale was about to get another battering.
In their summary findings following their February visit, the inspectors said, “Services for children in Croydon continue to improve. The newly appointed permanent senior leaders have quickly identified key issues and have acted promptly to make changes. Although very recent, there are signs of an acceleration of pace, with a concerted focus on key priorities.
“Staff morale is improving, with increasing confidence in the improvement journey under the new leadership. Staff turnover remains a challenge, but senior managers are making a concerted effort to ensure that the workforce is well-equipped and well-supported.
“Caseloads have been reduced, and some are lower than they have been for several years. Staff are benefiting from the clear strategic direction set by the executive director [Henderson] and from the director of early help and children’s social care [Pendry], who has a dedicated focus on frontline practice.
“Many children now receive a service that meets their needs, but some variability remains. For a small number of children, the service continues to be very poor. Some aspects of practice, such as the quality of plans for children, case recording, including written evidence of decision-making, and the frequency and quality of supervision and management oversight, remain stubbornly weak in many cases.”
The inspectors note, more than once, that it is too soon to judge the lasting impact which the new directors might have.
And given the continuing issues over some aspects of the department’s work, and the on-going recruitment problems, senior figures in the council’s offices at Fisher’s Folly have already been briefing councillors that Croydon will need more time before it can be ready for the return Ofsted inspection.
Neighbouring Bromley had its children’s services rated as inadequate a year before Croydon, in 2016, but was rated as “Good” after the return inspection last year, a two-year improvement process.
Tim Pollard, the leader of the opposition Conservative group at Croydon Town Hall, does not think that our council’s efforts compare favourably.
“There are four grades of service in the Ofsted framework: Inadequate, Requires Improvement, Good and Outstanding. Bromley is now Good with Outstanding leadership. I really want to see Croydon pull off the same sort of improvement when it is given its next full inspection,” Pollard said.
“But, tragically for those children and young people in its care, this looks unlikely to be what we get.”
Pollard lays much of the blame for the failure to recognise and act on the standards in Croydon’s children’s services on Flemming, and the council leader who has kept her in position since 2014, Tony Newman.
Flemming and Newman, Pollard said, “… didn’t notice that their service was failing and they seem content with the modest progress they have made in improving it”.
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