But staff retention 'extremely problematic'
Improvements to children’s services run by Devon County Council are starting to be made but ‘nothing is completely fixed’ according to inspectors.
That was one of the findings in a letter from inspector Nigel Parkes to Melissa Caslake, the county’s recently appointed chief officer for children’s services, following a two-day visit from Ofsted in May.
It comes after the service in Devon, excluding Torbay and Plymouth which are run separately, were last year rated as inadequate. ‘Serious failures’ were identified with a very small minority of care-leavers left living in unacceptable accommodation, of which senior leaders were unaware.
Today's report acknowledges the impact of covid and says the authority and its partners have “risen to the challenge, delivering a well-coordinated and effective response”.
It noted caution, however, adding that whilst a number of ‘under the bonnet repairs’ had been successfully carried out, the service was still "at the start of its improvement journey and ‘nothing is completely fixed."
There was also criticism of some aspects of the service. Mr Parkes said in the report: “The help and protection, care and support that many children receive are still poor.”
Inspectors are also concerned at staff recruitment and retention, which is described as “extremely problematic”.
It adds that prompt action is taken to protect children at immediate risk of harm but decision-making in less urgent cases still takes too long.
The report concludes: “There is no reason to doubt the county council’s support for children’s social care services, but the quality and effectiveness of scrutiny and critical challenge provided by elected members and the corporate centre are not yet fully developed.”
Reacting to the report, Councillor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Wearside &Topsham), cabinet member for children's services and schools said: “We are pleased that it says our effort is well co-ordinated and effective for our vulnerable children.
“Obviously we could do better, and I’m new in post so it’s my aim that we will do better, and that’s what I’m going to work night and day to achieve.
“We’ve got a new director of children’s services [Ms Caslake]. She’s not been in post very long. She’s excellent and has lots of experience, so I’ll be doing everything I can to support her and all our staff to improve our service and get us up to an excellent rating.”
Cllr Leadbetter acknowledged: “there is a problem with recruitment” and said staff would be offered improved pay and conditions in a letter to be sent to them later this year.
“There is lots of work going on about how we improve this, because we recognise that we need to get more social workers.”
The opposition leader on Devon County Council said children’s services have been failing for “eight long years” and called for a “root and branch review” of the service.
In a statement, Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon) said: "There is praise for a good number of areas of the work undertaken by children's services, but when you go behind the surface what you read is a service that has been struggling for years and there simply has been a failure by the council to get a real grip to turn it around and tackle the problems.
"For eight long years children's services, which should care for and protect the most vulnerable children and young people in Devon have simply been failing. County Hall bosses speak the words of improvement but year upon year, the service is not improving. However, other councils have made improvements and it shows it can be done.”
Chief officer for children’s services, Melissa Caslake, said: “We have risen to the challenge of covid, by maintaining our services to children and families during the pandemic, ensuring greater school attendance than nationally, especially for vulnerable children, and enabling schools, partners and communities to come together to deliver a well-co-ordinated and effective response.
“I am proud that Ofsted have recognised this work and want to thank all of my staff and partners who have made this possible through their determination and hard work.
“We have much more to do to deliver the best outcomes for children and we will relentlessly pursue this ambition to ensure children get the service they deserve. I am pleased that the progress made so far, through the efforts and commitment of staff, has been acknowledged.”