CROYDON IN CRISIS: Staff worry that an exodus of colleagues will desert bankrupt council before the worst of the cuts bite.
EXCLUSIVE By STEVEN DOWNES
Nick Pendry, Croydon’s director of early help and children’s social care, is to follow his former boss Rob Henderson in leaving the council.
Pendry becomes the third recent director-level departure from Croydon, in the month since the issuing of a Section 114 notice to admit that the council has gone bust.
Pendry had been in the job for barely two years, having arrived in January 2019. Together with Henderson, he was widely credited with leading the work which saw Croydon’s children’s services being given a “Good” rating in March, nearly three years – and £30million of extra spending – after a damning “Inadequate” Ofsted report in 2017.
Pendry announced his decision, to take another job in Wandsworth at the end of February, in an email sent to staff late on Thursday in which he wrote of his “great sadness”. Yet barely a fortnight before, Pendry had been telling his colleagues that he was in Croydon “for the long haul”.
Thursday’s announcement has caused considerable concern within the children, families and education directorate, coming as it does in the middle of the latest round of job cuts and spending restrictions at the bankrupt council.
There is no indication that Pendry has been “pushed” into leaving, given the catastrophic state of the council’s finances. Staff believe he is getting out before Croydon becomes such an unsafe place to work that it would seriously risk impacting on his reputation for him to stay.
Staff are said to be “sad but not surprised” at the announcement.
Pendry’s departure follows quickly after that of Henderson, the executive director, who joined Croydon at around the same time and became widely admired for his management skills. Henderson, too, is thought to have decided to quit the council before cuts to the children’s, families and education services began to take effect.
In Pendry’s email (sent at 5.31pm on Thursday and signed jointly by Debbie Jones, Henderson’s interim replacement), he wrote: “It is with great sadness that I need to let you all know that I will be leaving Croydon at the end of February to take up a post in Wandsworth.
“I truly love this job and working with you all. The work that we have put in together, which would not have been possible without the work that happened before I arrived, and our journey to ‘Good’ has been one of the absolute highlights of my career. This work has been brilliant and exhausting!
“And, after many discussions with my family, I have decided that the time is right to move on. I will miss Croydon and you all desperately. I know that you will continue to focus on offering the very best services to children, young people and their families and showing the persistence, commitment and compassion that I have come to know so well.”
Jones added that she knew “just how agonising this decision has been” for Pendry.
Jones, the de facto head of education in the borough, wrote: “I am acutely aware, as is Nick, of the vital importance of providing continuity at this most toughest of times.” Yes: “most toughest”.
Pendry announced his exit just days before council chiefs are due to submit a detailed application to Whitehall for a multi-million-pound bail-out from central government. After erasing 400 council posts earlier this year, a process is underway to cut another 130 jobs, while there is a ban on any non-essential spending and a recruitment freeze.
Staff are increasingly concerned that even statutory services, such as children’s services, will still be hit hard by the cuts.
In her note to the department, Jones wrote, “Nick and I have been very clear that the journey from ‘Good’ must continue. We will survive the 114 and will probably be stronger for it.”
Finding a replacement for Pendry, Jones wrote, is “a No1 priority for me”.
But staff are not necessarily entirely reassured. “Nick’s departure will be a massive blow to staff in children’s social care,” said one Fisher’s Folly insider.
“We are legitimately concerned about rising caseloads and a return to how it was when the department was judged ‘Inadequate’ in 2017.”
In 2017, social workers’ caseloads in an under-funded children’s services department had risen in some instances to 20 or more, which Ofsted inspectors suggested was a significant cause of staff not being able to give adequate attention to the children and young adults in the council’s care. Only massive spending towards recruiting more social workers saw caseloads reduced to 12 per staff member by the end of 2019, prior to the “Good” Ofsted rating.
But according to Alisa Flemming, the council cabinet member responsible, by September this year, after some arrangements with agency workers had been cancelled in an early money-saving measure, social work caseloads in children’s services had already increased by 25 per cent.
“The word on the street is that such is the scale of future cuts yet to be announced that it is unsurprising that Nick felt unable to follow through on his commitment,” the council staffer said.
“Of course, the prospect of further deep cuts didn’t feature in his email to staff. But people aren’t stupid.
“There is a risk that Croydon will see a mass exodus of those remaining staff, at all levels. Vacancies for qualified social workers and managers exist in most London boroughs, including Wandsworth.”
The reasoning is that, with other jobs to go to, including at inner London boroughs which often offer better pay and conditions, why would capable staff continue to struggle on in Croydon under worsening circumstances at the council?
“With the risk of services deteriorating and the loss of two respected senior managers, staff are genuinely worried for the future.
“However, let’s not forget that ultimately it will be the vulnerable children, young people and families who will be impacted if services revert to a minimum basic offer.”
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