Worcestershire has become the latest local authority area to see its children’s services hived off into a standalone company.
The new firm, Worcestershire Children First, takes responsibility today (1 October) for delivering children’s social care and – in a departure from many of its peer organisations’ models – education in the West Midlands county.
The company will remain wholly owned by its parent council. Its chief executive, Catherine Driscoll, also retains her role as the local authority’s director of children’s services, while its board is chaired by Rob Morrison, former chief executive of Blaenau Gwent council.
The handover follows a 2017 ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgment and subsequent review of Worcestershire’s children’s services by commissioner Trevor Doughty, which identified serious safety concerns at the council.
In August 2018 the Department for Education (DfE) issued a statutory direction ordering Worcestershire to transfer services into an arms-length company.
But in another contrast to authorities that have previously had children’s services removed from direct control – including Doncaster, Slough, Sunderland and Birmingham – Worcestershire Children First starts from the position of having already moved up an Ofsted grade.
A full inspection carried out in late June this year assessed all areas of children’s social care as ‘requires improvement’.
“Effective work by senior management and staff, together with commitment and investment by political leaders, has led to improved responses to the needs of children and families,” the inspection report said.
“As a result, outcomes for many children and their families are better, and there is evidence of a sustained trajectory of improvement,” it added.
Children’s services at arms length
Over the past five years children’s services trusts and other arms-length arrangements have been set up in ten local authority areas. While some have improved steadily, with the new organisations’ single-minded focus on children’s social care cited as a factor, others have seen progress stutter – and financial arrangements have been a concern for parent councils.
- In Slough, where services have reached ‘requires improvement’ after an independent trust was set up in 2015, the council recently warned that the organisation’s overspends could push the authority far over budget in 2020.
- Doncaster’s children’s services trust, the first to be established, has seen solid progress and was rated ‘good’ in 2018. The local council recently took it under closer control, in part to keep spending under tighter scrutiny.
- Services in Sunderland have struggled since being transferred to a new company, Together for Children, and remain ‘inadequate’. A recent monitoring visit found safeguarding was deteriorating.
- In Birmingham – home to by far the largest children’s services company – Ofsted praised social workers’ “dogged determination” in an inspection published at the start of 2019, which saw the regulator award a ‘requires improvement’ grade.
- Northamptonshire is the latest council where the move to an independent company is underway, with handover of services due to take place before the county council is split into two new unitary authorities in 2021.
A revised statutory direction published today by the DfE said that Doughty would “oversee the early stages of WCF’s operation to ensure the substantial improvement in the service made by the authority is sustained by WCF”.
In December Doughty will submit a report to the education secretary, assessing the new company’s first quarter of operation and any recommendations for its continued progress, the notice added.
‘Build on substantial improvement’
Andy Roberts, Worcestershire council’s cabinet member for children and families, said Worcestershire Children First “will help us to continue to improve the way children’s services are delivered, and build on the substantial improvement to services that was recognised by Ofsted in their latest inspection”.
“Children and young people are at the heart of the company and we’re looking forward to helping children in Worcestershire to lead happy and healthy lives and go on to reach their full potential,” he added.
Michelle Donelan, who took over the children’s minister portfolio at the DfE last month due to Kemi Badenoch taking maternity leave, said: “Every child should grow up in a safe and supported environment, so it’s encouraging to see that improvements are being made in the care being provided to vulnerable children and their families in Worcestershire.”
Donelan added: “The launch of Worcestershire Children First is an important step in making sure these families get the high quality care and support they deserve.”
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