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Government 'extremely concerned' about children's services

Child (Image by Compare Fibre / Unsplash)

County council department could face special measures

The government says it is “extremely concerned” about Devon County Council’s failing children’s services.

The comment by the Department for Education comes after Devon’s MPs were last week told the county’s children’s services are now considered to be the “third or fourth worst in the country.”

Unless there are signs of improvement, they are likely to be taken into special measures next year. This would involve Devon being stripped of its responsibilities and having children’s services placed into an independently run trust.

The council’s children’s services 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.

The Conservative-run council and NHS Devon both apologised after a revisit by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission in May found that progress had not been made in fixing four areas of “significant concern” identified in December 2018.

To help try to turn the service around, the council has adopted an improvement plan while 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.

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.

Council leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh & Wembury) told last week’s cabinet meeting the council is “taking this very seriously,” while a spokesperson added it is their “main priority.”

But time could be running out at County Hall, with a Department for Education spokesperson warning in a statement: “We are extremely concerned about the current performance of Devon County Council’s children’s social care and local SEND services.

“The children’s commissioner is working closely with the council to ensure that appropriate actions are carried out to improve children’s services in Devon and is closely supporting the recruitment of a new director of children’s services.”

They added the children’s commissioner will be providing a progress update to the department in the new year, which will consider whether a full commissioner review will be required.

Last week, Exeter’s Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said he is “really concerned the political leadership of Devon County Council does not understand the gravity of the situation they are in.”

He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service seven or eight other councils’ children’s services have been placed into a trust and warned: “This would incur significant extra costs which would fall on Devon’s council tax payers.”

A spokesperson for Devon County Council said: “We are working closely with government on our improvement plans for children’s social care and SEND services and recognise that there is more to do.

“Improving our support for children in Devon is our main priority.  We have a new structure and processes in place and believe that in collaboration with the DfE and other partners, and families of children and young people in Devon with SEND, we are on the right path.”

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