After nearly three years in special measures, Ofsted says that Croydon’s children’s services department is showing “sustained progress”, and is beginning to operate in a manner that properly serves the borough’s most vulnerable young people. The department’s social workers are having to deal with almost half the casework they had two years ago, though 4 in 10 jobs in the department remain vacant.
Ofsted published their summary letter this morning, two months after their most recent visit, the publication delayed because of pre-election purdah.
The inspectors’ findings – albeit after spending two days looking into a limited part of the children’s services operation in Croydon – will be a real feather in the cap for Robert Henderson, almost a year exactly since he took up the post of executive director at the council.
Henderson took on Croydon’s failing children’s services department which in 2017 was placed into special measures following a damning Ofsted inspectors’ report, exhibiting “widespread and serious failures”, and which left “some children at risk of significant harm”.
Even as recently as August 2018, the Ofsted inspectors found some children left in “neglectful circumstances”, and they were critical of the slow pace of improvements in Croydon’s children’s services.
That does seem to have changed under Henderson and Nick Pendry, who joined the council in January. The latest summary letter is the second in succession to highlight a rapid rate of improvements.
After visiting on October 16 and 17, the seventh monitoring visit since Croydon’s children’s services were rated “inadequate”, they report that, “Concerted and dynamic leadership continues to drive rapid progress in the quality of services for children in Croydon.
“Improvements were evident in almost all areas of practice reviewed during this monitoring visit. Progress over the last eight months has been sustained and is continuing to gain further momentum.”
The inspectors also state that the work of the department’s leadership is driving the progress, and is “reaping considerable rewards, and services for children are consistently improving”.
They state that, “Almost all children receive at least a reasonable level of service, and some practice is strong. Work with, and for, children is increasingly positive and purposeful, and staff are becoming more confident in their practice…”.
It is also noted that Croydon’s senior leaders and managers “are fully aware of the variability that remains in the quality of practice”.
They state: “This includes a group of children and families in receipt of child protection services who previously experienced poor practice, including drift in planning, and who are in need of skilled and purposeful attention. Appropriate action is now being taken to address this.”
As with all such Ofsted visits, this focused on certain aspects of the department’s work – children with a child protection plan, and children who have a plan for adoption. The previous visit, which took place in July, looked at services offered to disabled children and those being privately fostered. The findings there, though overall reflecting considerable improvement, noted “children living in private fostering arrangements receive a poor service”.
There were few such negative comments in this latest report, though some long-standing problems – such as with recruitment of social workers – remain. Given that millions of pounds of additional money has been directed to children’s services since 2017, largely to fill social worker jobs many of which had been made redundant under previous cut-backs, for the department to still have a 40 per cent vacancy rate will be of some concern to Henderson and his senior managers.
Having social workers over-burdened with impossibly large amounts of casework was one of the fundamental causes of the previously failing service, and without proper staffing levels that is a situation which could easily recur.
The inspectors state, “Staff report being very happy working for Croydon. They are well supported and now have manageable caseloads. Staff commented very positively on the progress under the current leadership, describing a culture of open communication and a dedication to positive change… The current average caseload in the social work with families service is just over 14, which is below the local authority’s target of 16 for the service. Social workers have the time and space to undertake work with children, and an environment has been created to embed consistently positive work…
“Staff recruitment continues to be a challenge in Croydon, despite the persistent, widespread and creative efforts of the leadership team. The staff vacancy rate is over 40 per cent, and some services, including the social work with families service, have vacancies. However, there are positive signs of progress and a stable, permanent, management team has been established. Agency staff are well supported and caseloads remain manageable.”
Taken together with the previous, generally positive, report, it does seem that real progress is being made. “The overall improvements to compliance, together with signs of strong practice, mean that they can now focus on improving the consistency of the quality of practice for all children,” the inspectors conclude.
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