The Committee received a report of the Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services which provided an overview of the outcomes of the recent Ofsted Standards ILACS Inspection of Children’s Services.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services was in attendance to deliver a presentation that provided details of the outcome of the inspection; key headlines and themes; areas of improvement; children in need of help and protection feedback; children in care feedback; care leavers; impact of leaders on social work practice and next steps (for copy of the report and presentation, see file of minutes).
Members were informed that in May 2022 Ofsted carried out a three-week inspection of children’s services. Seven inspectors considered evidence which included hundreds of children and young people’s records, they spoke with staff, foster carers, CAFFCASS, the regional Judge and some young people who had experienced Durham County Council’s Children and Young People’s Services.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services advised Members that the overall judgement was rated good with one area outstanding, so they were heading in the right direction.
Councillor Hunt referred to care leavers and commented that she had personally seen a massive difference in the provision that was going in the right direction and if judged now could be outstanding. She then referred to the retention of social workers as children were saying that they were seeing a range of social workers in a short period of time. She was aware that they were looking at apprenticeships that was good and would like more information on this. She then referred to respite care and she was aware that a lot of work was to be done and they needed to be focusing on this as there was a huge need.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services responded that care leavers were a long debate with the inspectors and was borderline for outstanding as they could see what they were doing but couldn’t see the impact as yet. With regard to recruitment there were a number of challenges, and an agency workforce was now operating so a number of teams were seeing staff leaving to move to work for agencies, so the vacancy rate had nearly doubled in the last year. There were not enough social workers in the system as the agencies were poaching staff then selling them back to the council for two or three times the cost. They could revisit the workforce strategy and look at what they could do differently and that was where apprenticeships came in. They were talking to the regulator on how they could support, as new qualified social workers were going to work in agencies, there needed to be some part of the process that supported those workers, and they should have experience before moving into this area. Respite work they had some pieces of work going on, but it was not a short-term fix as those specialist staff do not exist in the system and was more nursing staff was the issue rather than social workers. A number of providers were offering services to adults but not children.
Councillor Gunn congratulated the service and commented that an inspection was a serious level of scrutiny and there was a lot of pressure placed on the service during the course of the inspection. The aim over the years was ambitious for outstanding, and she was sure that they were nearly there. One of the key areas was implementation of the social work academy in reducing the number of cases for social workers. She referred to respite care and asked if during COVID that some providers closed down and there was simply a shortage of providers now and was this across the country. Moving forward the challenges were going to be keeping the number of social workers that the council had.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services responded that it was a challenge keeping social workers and that a recruitment strategy was important. In relation to respite care, it was a regional issue in particular the number of providers. During COVID due to the risks, children did not go into respite care and a number of providers closed down, struggled to get the workforce or were working with restricted services. There were regional discussions going on to address and manage this, but the situation was worse in the North East region, services were originally limited pre pandemic and work is carried out using a regional footprint. The Corporate Director indicated that the social workers academy was a victim of its own success as it was the first in the region and other local authorities had copied so they needed to move onto the next thing to allow them to catch up.
Councillor Gunn asked if the recruitment of social workers was recognised by government as it was a national issue and if anything was in place nationally.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services responded that this year he was Vice-President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and would be President in April and had been involved in lots of conversations with Senior Civil Servants and Ministers. Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted recognised and understood the challenges and were conscious of the need to make some national changes and would expect over the next six months some national activity to start to address the problems.
Mrs Gunn commented that you could see that the number of children in care was increasing and asked if this was a result of the good work and that more children were identified as needing care.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services responded that there was an element of that due to identification and the work that they were doing with families meant that they were able to be clearer about long term sustainability and change and some children did come into care sooner. Across the country the number of children in care was increasing and research showed that this was directly linked to poverty. COVID had also had an impact but that was not seen fully yet. Some groups like respite care had seen an immediate impact, but the majority of the impact was just starting to show now, he would expect to see an increase in numbers of children in care as a result and generally the number of children in care tended to rise during economic pressures, but overwhelming research links the rise to poverty.
Mrs Gunn commented that employee costs were low and asked if this was that due to using more third parties.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services indicated that most of the workforce spend was down as they currently had their lowest number of agency social workers not because they don’t need them but because they could not get them, and the cost would be double if they could get the workers.
In response to a further question from Mrs Gunn, the Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services indicated that the spend on external placements was significant. However, increases in demand had not been followed by an increase in the supply of spaces. In a normal functioning market, you would see an increase in services as demand increased but that had not happened.
Councillor Coult thanked the team and commented that it was a fantastic result. The areas that were identified by Ofsted you were already aware of and were taking steps to address and led by example with some fantastic things and some of which had been replicated throughout the country. Services were continuing to grow. This was why it was critical that they got the Growing up in County Durham Strategy right so that they could get support for children, young people and families as quickly as possible to stop them needing to come through the system.
Councillor Reed indicated that it was a brilliant result and commented that they should have received outstanding in every area. She was pleased that they had managed to increase the number of foster homes and outlined her concerns about an area of improvement identified in the report - in respect of children going missing and the requirement to wait 30 minutes after the agreed return home time before reporting to the police and asked if they were looking at quicker response times.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services responded that children would have a safety plan individual to them if they were to go missing the plan would set out the response times. There were a range of different challenges, but they had a great partnership with the police and worked closely with the specialist ERASE team who ensure those at particular risk are identified and addressed. He assured Councillor Reed that when there was a specific risk there was flexibility. They had protocols in place for children’s homes for children who were potentially missing, and the Philomena Protocol is used to work with children at risk.
Councillor Hunt referred to the increase in numbers of children in care and asked if that attributed to the work they were doing with early intervention.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services responded that early intervention was been preventative, but it identified the need earlier. There was a balance there and an element of that, but they needed to look at the long-term trend in terms of increased care. Children’s care covered a vast array and they had become better at identifying extended family and family networks through early intervention work. Children come into care in a different way and high-end care accounted for 85-90 of over 1000 children in care.
Councillor Hunt commented that even though the numbers had risen children were getting early intervention to limit the long-term damage.
The Chair asked for an update report on the Inspection Action Plan and Service Improvement Plan be brought back to the committee in 6 months to a year.
The Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services agreed to a further report and indicated how proud he was of all the staff who had worked through COVID with some exceptional challenges and continued to be ambitious for our children and did some amazing things.
Resolved: That the report and presentation be noted, and a further report brought back to a future meeting of the committee.