Plymouth and Torbay councils are set to end a children’s services partnership after less than two years, after its expected benefits failed to materialise.
The decision will see Torbay recruit a new dedicated director of children’s services (DCS), rather than be overseen by Plymouth’s DCS, Alison Botham, who has been in charge of both. It follows an annual review of arrangements by the two partners and the Department for Education (DfE).
The deal, which aimed to achieve sustained improvement in both boroughs, was sealed in April 2018 following a recommendation to the DfE by Hampshire council chief executive John Coughlan, acting as children’s commissioner overseeing progress at under-performing Torquay.
The plan was based on Coughlan’s own experience of a successful arrangement between his employer and neighbouring Isle of Wight council’s children’s services. This year the island council completed a turnaround from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’, with Ofsted saying that the partnership with Hampshire “had brought stable and consistent leadership, increased resilience and a firm focus on continual improvement”.
Successive ‘inadequate’ verdicts
Hampshire has a long record of stability and strong Ofsted ratings, whereas Plymouth was rated ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted. But it was felt at that time that the Devon city’s strong management structure would enable the children’s services partnership to flourish.
The arrangement took an immediate knock, however, when Torbay received a second successive ‘inadequate’ verdict in summer 2018. This was against both partners’ expectations and worsened social work staffing problems at the authority, said a report prepared for Plymouth council’s cabinet meeting next week.
Since then Torbay has continued to struggle with recruitment and retention at all levels, and has consequently made little headway in terms of improving practice, which Ofsted’s most recent monitoring visit said had “stalled” in some areas. Its financial situation has at the same time worsened due to agency staffing and placement costs, said the report for Plymouth’s cabinet, which recommends ending the partnership.
The report also noted that earlier this year that three heads of service at Torbay resigned or left prematurely, while the assistant director of safeguarding, who reports to Botham, was signed off sick.
The report added that despite funding support from the DfE, which has provided extra training for frontline staff and managers and enabled the creation of an additional team at Torbay, progress remains slow. “It is clear that the project team have not been able to deliver all that was anticipated and this team has similarly faced recruitment challenges,” it said.
Insufficient top-level capacity
Meanwhile Plymouth has also failed to make significant progress, with Ofsted inspectors noting improvements but also areas of weak practice as they again graded the council ‘requires improvement’ at the start of 2019.
“A significant factor in the slower rate of achievement points to the issue of capacity at senior management level,” Plymouth’s cabinet report said. “The scale of the task and the sheer practical difficulties of being sufficiently visible in both authorities suggests additional capacity is absolutely vital within the senior management structure in order to genuinely make further progress.”
Social work consultant Ray Jones, who oversaw child protection improvement at Torbay from 2012-14, during which its Ofsted rating improved from ‘inadequate’ to ‘adequate’, said it remained his view that the authority was too small to manage the significant issues it faced as a coastal town with high deprivation.
‘Larger, high-performing council should step in’
“The arrangement to assist and provide leadership and management from another council was constructive and positive,” Jones added. “The difficulty is that Plymouth has been working hard to stabilise and improve its own children services and as another relatively small local authority was likely to be stretched in assisting Torbay. The most sensible way forward would be for a larger, and well performing local authority to now assist by taking on the role of assisting Torbay.”
“What would not be sensible would be to create the delay, disruption and distraction for 18 months of setting up a separate trust or company to provide Torbay’s services. It will still be too small and unsustainable and more costly.”
Coughlan reached a similar conclusion in his 2017 report as Torbay’s commissioner.
A statement issued by both councils said that co-operation between the two authorities would continue, including maintaining a joint safeguarding partnership.
“The councils are working closely with the Department of Education to ensure a safe and smooth transition to the new arrangements for children and staff and Torbay council children’s services will remain under government intervention,” the statement said.