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.
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.
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.”
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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