Inspectors from Ofsted have warned that some of the borough’s most vulnerable children may be put at greater risk as a consequence of cuts and redundancies caused by the council’s financial collapse.
Ofsted inspectors last month carried out their latest “focused visit” to Croydon’s children’s services department and said that there are “worrying signs” that the council crisis is already having an impact on the department.
Croydon’s children’s services’ whose responsibilities include children in care, fostering and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
Following an Ofsted inspection in 2017, Croydon’s children’s services was declared “inadequate”. Such was the real risk then to the well-being of children, teens and young people that officials from outside Croydon were brought in to remedy the dire situation.
The department was given a revised Ofsted rating of “Good” in March 2020, but only after the council had spent an additional £30million in efforts to recruit more and better-experienced staff.
It was this kind of spending which was criticised by auditors and government inspectors around the time that Croydon declared itself effectively bankrupt last November.
With the money taps being turned off, the Ofsted inspectors are already noticing a difference.
In a formal letter and summary report published on Monday, Ofsted inspector Brenda McLaughlin said that the financial cuts were impacting early help services – this is help given to children and families experience problems including domestic violence, school exclusion, mental health problems and “low level” neglect.
“Early help services are becoming stretched as the impact of financial constraints takes hold,” McLaughlin’s report states.
“Senior leaders are actively working to limit the impact of the savings that they are required to make on frontline services, but all teams will be expected to absorb additional work previously handled by other services.”
The report also noted that there have been delays in the out of hours service which provides urgent support for vulnerable children. “Unacceptable delay in responding to some safeguarding referrals out of hours by the emergency duty team means that some children do not receive timely help and protection.”
The inspectors found that social workers in the department have good relationships with children with more face-to-face meetings than before, including continuing throughout the pandemic for the most vulnerable children.
The report was, overall, more positive about the efforts of Croydon social workers and senior management, but it sounded concern about the inevitable consequences of cuts.
Despite the pressures that the department has been under for the past four years, some of the expensively recruited social work staff have chosen to leave or have been subject to some of the council’s borough-wide redundancy programme.
There are signs that some of the children’s services department’s practices are slipping back to the way things were in 2017. According to one Katharine Street source, “Staff are leaving every day and agency staff are plugging the gap, so it is a lot of pressure for them to take.”
Alisa Flemming, the Labour-run council’s cabinet member for children, young people and learning, who presided over the catastrophic collapse of children’s services in 2017 but who was never sacked by Tony Newman, the discredited former leader of the council, has so far had nothing to say about the latest Ofsted inspection.
But a statement issued by the council admitted that “swift and appropriate action” is being taken only in “most cases”, and not all instances where children need to be kept safe.
“We are pleased that inspectors have noted [staff’s] ‘commitment, professionalism and determination’ to do the right thing for children, and it’s encouraging to hear that our staff feel supported and morale is good.
“Ofsted has identified some areas for improvement and we will be working with our partners to address these as a priority,” the council said, without explaining how it will manage to do that without the money to pay for it.
“The mismanagement of the finances has led to this and will lead to a poorer service for our children,” said Councillor Maria Gatland, the Conservatives’ shadow cabinet member for children, following a decade of budget cuts to the council’s finances by Tory government.
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