County ‘moving in right direction’ but deadline for setting up trust may be too tight, commissioners warn

Unallocated case backlog cleared but improvements 'not yet well-embedded', says DfE update as council prepares for reorganisation

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

Children’s commissioners appointed by government to oversee Northamptonshire children’s services’ transition to trust have recorded tentative progress within the troubled county in a new report.

In a first update since Northamptonshire’s director of children’s services and assistant director quit in autumn 2019, swiftly followed by their predecessor children’s commissioner Malcolm Newsam, Andrew Christie and Clare Chamberlain said unallocated cases had been at zero for six weeks as of last month.

By comparison, when the new commissioners – both of whom are former directors of children’s services – arrived in October in the county the figure stood at more than 300.

In January, Ofsted carried out a first monitoring visit since Northamptonshire was found ‘inadequate’ last summer, which found improvements were being made to the children’s services front door,  Christie and Chamberlain noted.

The monitoring visit report is not expected to be made public but the commissioners’ update contained quotes from it stating that morale and workforce capacity at the council had improved since new senior leaders were appointed.

“Although some of the priority actions raised at the focused visit [in October 2018] with regard to the workforce have yet to be fully implemented, risks to children are being better identified at the front door and children are now being seen more promptly,” Ofsted inspectors were quoted as saying.

From their own observations, the commissioners added that oversight within Northamptonshire children’s services was now better, with “cases of concern escalated more often”.

But they warned that “signs of improvement [are] at an early stage and not yet well-embedded”.

Trust deadline risk

Christie and Chamberlain also warned in their report that a proposed July 2020 deadline for the new children’s trust to launch may not provide enough time for “safe and effective setup”.

“From the outset, it has been clear that progress of the trust setup had been slower than originally expected and that key milestones have been missed,” they said.

On a positive note, the trust’s chair – Ian Curryer, the chief executive at Nottingham council – had been appointed, the commissioners’ report said.

But the “complex challenges, competing priorities and scale of wider change” in Northamptonshire were likely to continue to test the council’s capacity to make necessary arrangements in time, it added.

“Previous experience has shown that it usually takes a minimum of 12 months for the safe setup of a trust,” the commissioners said. “That said, given the particular circumstances of Northamptonshire [with ‘shadow’ versions of the new unitaries due to start in May], it is our view that there cannot be much further delay to the start of operations.”

The report said a go-live date should be decided on by the end of March, though this estimate was made before the onset of the coronavirus crisis.

Middlesbrough faces losing services

Elsewhere, the Department for Education has issued new or revised directions to several other councils recently graded ‘inadequate’.

In Middlesbrough, which was judged to be ‘inadequate’ across all practice areas in January, the ex-North Yorkshire director of children’s services (DCS), Peter Dwyer, will assume the children’s commissioner’s role.

At the Teesside council, where inspectors warned that a “culture of harm” was being tolerated, with risks around exploitation and neglect not being managed, Dwyer will be asked to assess whether services should be removed from council control.

He is due to report his findings to the DfE by the end of May.

Meanwhile Stoke, which was told last autumn that children’s services could remain under council control, has been ordered to enter into a formal improvement partnership with ‘outstanding’ Leeds for an initial 12 months.

The Potteries authority had been receiving interim support from Essex and Stockport councils. Eleanor Brazil will remain as children’s commissioner in Stoke.

Finally in Hull, where former Slough children’s services trust boss Nicola Clemo recently came out of retirement to take the DCS role in the wake of a negative monitoring visit, Paul Moffat has been appointed commissioner.

Moffat was formerly the chief executive at Doncaster children’s services trust, which under his leadership became the first such organisation to achieve a ‘good’ rating in 2018.

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