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Devon children's services warning

Thursday, 15 December 2022 15:01

By Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter @OliHepy

Devon County Council headquarters, County Hall (courtesy: Joe Ives/LDRS)

MPs told department could face special measures

Children’s services run by Devon County Council are among the worst in the country and could be placed into special measures next year, MPs have been told.

The department was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in January 2020, while Devon was also recently hit with a government improvement notice for its services for children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) which it runs in partnership with NHS Devon.

Four areas of “significant concern” were identified by an inspector in December 2018 following a joint visit by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, but a revisit this May found “progress has not been made” in fixing any of them.

The Conservative-run council and NHS Devon both apologised.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, 14 December, leader of the Labour group, councillor Carol Whitton (St David’s & Haven Banks) revealed Devon’s MPs have been told the council’s children’s services are now considered to be the “third or fourth worst in the country.”

She added that, unless there are signs of improvement, the service will be taken into special measures next year. This would involve stripping Devon of its responsibilities and placing children’s services into an independently run trust.

Two MPs have since confirmed Cllr Whitton’s comments, which she described as “an appalling state of affairs” and “not something to be proud of.”

Leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh & Wembury) said the council was “taking this very seriously” with 50 per cent more money being put into the service over the last five years, but he admitted: “Unfortunately, we’ve not seen that much of a response.”

The cabinet meeting was also presented with a report by the council’s SEND task group; set up to look at how children and young people are supported by council services, how they work with families, partners, schools and colleges, as well as how staff are coping with the extra demand.

Chair of the cross-party group, Councillor Su Aves (Labour, St Sidwell’s & St James), told the cabinet: “What we found was shocking. We are one of the worst councils in the country. This is inadequate.”

She asked councillors not to “blame this all on the staff,” adding: “Not enough has been done fast enough, so now we need early intervention and support delivered quickly and sustained for our children. We need you to show leadership on this, please.”

The group’s report found that “Devon’s performance is poor, our quality of practice is poor and our spending is too high.

“Long standing issues around poor communication, exhausted staff, low thresholds for accepting EHC [education, health and care] needs assessments, issuing too many EHC plans as well as our use of independent sector settings have contributed to this.”

It sets out a number of recommendations, including to take “immediate action” to reduce excessive caseloads of staff, lobby the government for reforms to the SEND system and to review communications to “reflect the needs of parents, carers and professionals.”

Cllr Aves said the group does have confidence in a recently produced SEND improvement plan but stressed: “It needs to be delivered at speed and [the leadership] need your support.”

She concluded: “Please own this. It has happened under your watch. If you don’t think you are up to the challenge of changing this then change your cabinet members.”

Devon’s cabinet member for children’s services, Councillor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Wearside & Topsham) said in response: “Of course we take this extremely seriously, which is why we’re working tirelessly to sort it out – the leader, the chief executive, all our staff.”

He added: “We all know that we’ve come out of a pandemic and we all know it’s very hard to recruit people at the moment. And we have put extra resources into this department to really pump up our recruitment processes, so we’re doing everything possible we can to recruit people.

Cllr Leadbetter also reminded the meeting that changes have been made to the department’s leadership. Melissa Caslake recently left as director of children’s services, with Somerset’s former children’s lead Julian Wooster put in interim charge last week.

On Mr Wooster’s watch, the Ofsted rating for Somerset’s children’s services rose from ‘inadequate’ in 2015 to ‘good’ in its most recent inspection this July.

On the threat of special measures being imposed, Cllr Leadbetter said the council was “going to work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen” and claimed the time it normally takes to set up a trust – “about two years” – would be “no good for Devon.”

Earlier this month, the council’s opposition leader Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge) called for the government to take over children’s services, saying the council had “spectacularly failed to get to grips with the problems for some 13 years.”

Cllr Hart responded by saying the authority was “determined to improve our help for children and families,” adding: “We are already working closely with the Department for Education on rapidly implementing our improvement plan.”

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