Local authority’s surprise ‘energy drink’ intervention

A council's plans to recruit private or voluntary sector help to improve its children’s services have been met with mixed reactions, finds Judy Cooper.

Sandwell is looking to improve its children's services department
Sandwell is looking to improve its children's services department

Earlier this year Sandwell was regarded as having turned a corner in its child safeguarding services. It emerged from the depths of a government improvement notice, and ‘inadequate’ Ofsted ratings since 2009, to achieve a ‘satisfactory’ rating in February.

But the resignation of current director of children’s services Barbara Peacock, after just two years, has prompted the council to take the unusual step of essentially placing an intervention order on itself.

The authority is tendering out the leadership of its children’s services, looking for councils, private companies or charities who can deliver a DCS, a range of training and investment into its current leadership and frontline teams.

Although Sandwell’s children’s services have improved markedly, the council’s chief executive Jan Britton is worried about the challenge of recruiting a high quality DCS, combined with what he believes is a tougher inspection criteria.

Energy boost

“I’ve seen media reports that claim five out of 24 councils who have been inspected by Ofsted this year, based on draft inspection reports, were found to be inadequate,” Britton says. “I’m worried our pace of improvement will not be fast enough and we risk being overtaken by the new inspection regime.”

Sliding back into an inadequate rating is not to be contemplated, he says, adding the department needs an “energy drink”. “You don’t take an energy drink if you’re sick, nor do you take them all the time. It’s a shot in the arm to get you over a line. That’s what we need here.”

The proposed 30-month contract would also, Britton points out, provide more stability than the department has enjoyed since 2000, having gone through nine directors in that period.

Raised eyebrows

The move has been viewed with some raised eyebrows in the sector and condemned by unions.

Sandwell Unison joint branch secretary Richard Alonzo says the plans reflect a quick fix mentality that fails to deal with the underlying issues.

“We need to ask why we’ve had such a high turnover of directors in that time,” Alonzo says.

“It’s because we’re not dealing with the high turnover of frontline staff which comes down to the lack of a proper workload management tool. We need stability from the bottom up so then a DCS doesn’t feel they are fire-fighting all the time.

Stability and continuity

“The service needs, just like the vulnerable children it serves, stability and continuity. Children’s social care is a marathon not a sprint. We need committed individuals who can go the distance, rather than a sugar rush to give a quick boost, but leaves you coming up short.”

Alonzo also claims the plans will see the council forking out consultant rates on the contract when money is already short.

Britton agrees such a contract is likely to be expensive, but is adamant the money is coming from management reductions in other areas and children’s services will not suffer. He also maintains no other member of the management team will go to make way for contractors.

However, interim children’s services manager and consultant Nick Berbiers, who was sent to Doncaster during a government intervention order, is doubtful.

“Usually in a change management model or an intervention process you appoint the DCS and they are the ones who decide on the team they want around them in order to achieve the change needed.

“They also decide on the training package that is needed for the rest of the staff.

Proactive thinking

“You would need an experienced DCS with knowledge of social care and a proven track record in change management. This will be difficult for a private company or charity to provide. The very nature of the process of council tendering also means it’s difficult to see any individuals prepared to put a package together to apply. So that only leaves other councils really.”

Berbiers is also surprised at the timing. “Usually when you achieve a satisfactory rating that’s the time you start putting in place your permanent team to bed things down for the long haul of keeping the change sustainable.

“Your change management model is really planning for transition right from the start so it seems an odd time to do it.”

But he commends Sandwell for thinking proactively and trying different things in the current changing landscape of children’s services.

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