Director follows commissioner in exiting Northamptonshire’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services

Unions say staff frustrated by uneven pay structures and feel 'adrift' by senior leaders' comings and goings, as unallocated cases soar

Cityscape image of Northampton, home of Northamptonshire council (credit: Jevanto Productions / Adobe Stock)
Northampton cityscape (credit: Jevanto Productions / Adobe Stock)

By Alex Turner and Mithran Samuel

Northamptonshire council’s director of children’s services is to leave her post at the end of the month, following the departure of the commissioner appointed by government to turn round the ‘inadequate’ county.

Sally Hodges only joined the council as DCS in February – on a temporary arrangement worth £1,100 a day. She is to leave on 25 October, with her departure following in quick succession to that of commissioner Malcolm Newsam.

Jean Imray, assistant director of early years and safeguarding, is also to leave the authority, staff told Community Care – though the council has yet to formally confirm this.

Northamptonshire, which has longstanding financial problems, was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in July and is due to have its children’s services transferred to an independent trust next year.

Latest cabinet revenue monitoring papers from this week revealed the council is facing a projected overspend of £4.4 million, against an approved budget of £417.7 million, with a £7.6 million children’s service deficit providing the main budget pressure.

‘Astounding’ departures

Labour’s shadow member for children’s services at Northamptonshire, Jane Birch, said it was “astounding” Hodges and Imray were leaving the council and that she was afraid of services heading towards transfer to the trust while not in a robust state.

“At this level, for some of the most experienced social workers in the country to just walk away from a service in crisis – how bad must it be?” Birch said. “They were trying to get caseloads down, things were going in the right direction but then [unallocated cases] have suddenly all gone up again – it suggests there are not enough staff there to manage them.”

Northamptonshire’s children’s services jobs page mentions a commitment to achieving levels of 85% permanent staff, and says “many” frontline teams have reduced caseloads – though does not say what this is benchmarked against. The Northamptonshire Telegraph reported that numbers of unallocated cases at the council –which at one point had been over 500, before falling to around 150 in April 2019 – had been rising again recently and were now at 232.

Birch said that after two commissioners were sent in by the government to oversee the council, after it declared itself effectively bankrupt, money had been spent on ‘golden hellos’ for new starters. But, she claimed, the commissioners’ focus on “balancing the books” meant existing staff had not been invested in.

‘Dissatisfied workforce’

A spokesperson for Northamptonshire council’s Unison branch pointed to problems retaining social workers as a major ongoing problem within the authority’s children’s services.

Unison’s spokesperson said longstanding social work staff were “frustrated” by an uneven playing field regarding pay and benefits – dating back to national pay and conditions being removed in 2013 – and that some were “voting with their feet”.

“We’ve got a dissatisfied workforce in that people have been here all their lives, worked 10 or 20 years [at the council], and with all the supplements, new people are starting on more money,” the spokesperson said. “We have the frustration of managers signing off workers they supervise who are getting paid more than them.”

New starters receive bonuses of up to £5,000, as well as up to £8,000 to relocate. At the time of writing, agency social work roles within Northamptonshire’s duty and assessment team were also being advertised at £36 per hour – more than £65,000 a year – plus an accommodation allowance of £150 a week.

But October’s cabinet papers showed that the council was failing to convert agency social workers to permanent staff as fast as it hoped – causing a £1.5 million budget pressure – and to recruit enough social workers from abroad.

Social workers also felt left “adrift” by senior comings and goings at the council, with no clear sense of what would happen next, the spokesperson said.

“You’ve got the commissioner gone, and now the directors gone,” the spokesperson said. “It makes it hard for people to have a direction – because we all know if someone new comes in they will have different ideas.”

‘Tremendous job’

In a statement, chief executive Theresa Grant said: “I am writing to let you know that Sally Hodges has decided to leave the county council as our director of children’s services. Sally has done a tremendous job of leading our children’s services through a very challenging time but her contract was a limited one and she is stepping away in order that a new director can take up the reins and prepare for the setting up of the children’s trust in 2020.

“Children’s services is on a significant improvement programme following an inspection by Ofsted and Sally has been key in driving this change forward. Sally’s leadership has encouraged staff and others to maintain their focus on the children we look after and our responsibilities to them.”

Grant said the authority hoped to appoint a new DCS in the next few weeks.

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4 Responses to Director follows commissioner in exiting Northamptonshire’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services

  1. Desperate October 9, 2019 at 7:54 pm #

    They really are running Northamptonshire children’s services down ready for it to be turned into a trust.

    The Leader and Chief Exec must be held to account they have caused this mess.

    Teams full of locums and imported from other countries, no increase in pay for staff, poor training, large caseloads. They do not want staff to stay. They treat staff with contempt and he highly paid senior managers can’t bear it and leave.

    Just follow the money.

    Poor children of Northants

  2. Ray Jones October 10, 2019 at 2:47 pm #

    This is absolutely awful for children and families in Northamptonshire and for the social workers who against all the odds have strived to give them help and care. The government and those who have given it advice – including the recently departed commissioner – should all accept responsibility for creating turmoil when what was required was a focus on building stability and confidence. The government enforced move to a trust outside the public sector recommended by the now absent commissioner has been a costly distraction which has been ideologically driven. Time, money and attention would have been better spent building, resourcing and supporting a stable frontline who might have confidence that senior managers would be beside them and stay in place. There are lessons to be learnt here – but don’t hold your breath as the same (primarily two) government advisors are stiill seen as the experts to be parachuted into other councils. Surely they too now realise that their inclination to move statutory children’s services out of the public sector and local authorities is costly and delays and hinders improvement. Just look at what has happened in Slough, Doncaster and Sandwell where they have left their marks and scars.

  3. Kerry October 11, 2019 at 8:31 am #

    This is awful, and questionable, when allegedly these are supposed to be people who are at the top of their field. It is widely known from Other Local Authorities, who have gone into Trust the damage that was previously caused to them, and it takes time to make improvements.

    With all due respect the amount of money that is going into fund the Commissioner, the Director and the AD is ridiculous and would have been better spent elsewhere. It needs one strong lead, and it is well known you will not get permanent staff when the service is in disarray. So the Golden Hello’s need to go, the permanent staff there need an incentive to get the service stable and reward the hard work that they are doing and no doubt feeling the pressure and the burn out, agency works are used to reduce case loads and clear the back log.

    The government need to stop with all of the cuts as it clearly is not working and services are just not able to run, and this is a prime example, yet they find money for the Commissioner. With the cuts, the government focus is taken away from the child/ren and their needs, which leads to children being left at further risk, because the service is simply fire fighting and this is a recipe for further disaster. It is clear that the Government do not have an understanding as to how Social Care runs on a day to day basis, which we all know will likely lead to the death of a child and the backlash from that will cause further distress and further issues for the profession!!!!

  4. John Simpson October 15, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

    The proposed transfer into a Trust model won’t actually solve anything. It’s a bit like the ill-fated ‘First-generation model’ which was the previous cunning plan the local authority (and let’s not forget that the local councillors all agreed and fell for it!).

    The reality is the local authority is out of its depth and the current commissioners parachuted in are equally clueless in finding a resolution to the travails that are a consequence of years of poor and systemic chronic oversight and management. Sadly, I have no faith that this will change in the near future as the council trashes from one crisis to another.

    The decline in the council was of no surprise to anyone that worked there. I well remember a previous AD saying in front of a very large group of workers that if they were unhappy with the changes being made (changes to workers terms and conditions), they could leave. It is not a huge surprise that a large number of them actually took their advice!