The launch of an independent children’s services trust in Northamptonshire has been postponed indefinitely, Community Care has learned.
Andrew Christie, the children’s commissioner appointed by the Department for Education (DfE) to oversee the transfer, said delaying the planned July start date was to enable Northamptonshire to prioritise its response to Covid-19.
But a recent report to the DfE by Christie and fellow commissioner Clare Chamberlain, which was completed in February and makes no reference to coronavirus, cast doubt on whether the transfer of services could in any case have safely taken place within the proposed timescale.
Over the past few days, it has also emerged that James Thomas, the interim chief executive appointed in early March to set up the fledgling trust, Children First Northamptonshire, was already in the running for a job at another council at the time, and will leave by the end of June. The current public health emergency means no successor will be appointed for the foreseeable future.
Opposition councillors at the Conservative-run authority expressed anger in a meeting yesterday at a perceived lack of transparency around the children’s services trust’s launch and the likelihood that Thomas would leave.
While Thomas was described from the outset as taking up the chief executive role on an interim basis, sources within the council also said there had been no indication he might leave before Children First Northamptonshire was up and running.
Years of upheaval
Children’s services in Northamptonshire were found to be ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in July 2019, for the second time in three inspections.
Two months earlier it was decided that the county would be divided into two unitary authorities in 2021, with children’s services moved to a county-wide trust in 2020, in the context of serious financial mismanagement at the council, which effectively declared itself bankrupt the year before.
Further upheaval followed last autumn when the director of children’s services (DCS), Sally Hodges, assistant director Jean Imray and the previous DfE children’s commissioner, Malcom Newsam, quit in quick succession.
The appointment of Nottingham council chief executive Ian Curryer as trust chair in February and the arrival in early March of Thomas, who has recent experience improving services at Tameside and working with arms-length organisation Achieving for Children in Richmond, struck a more positive note.
However, a press release issued last week by Tower Hamlets council revealed that Thomas would be taking over as corporate director for children and culture at the authority, which has seen major recent improvements, from July.
‘Timescales felt wrong’
Speaking to Community Care yesterday, Labour councillor Jane Birch, the shadow portfolio member for children’s services in Northamptonshire, criticised the council for not clearly communicating the likelihood of Thomas’s tenure being cut short, which had apparently only been disclosed in a briefing to cabinet members.
“With no one to run the children’s services trust, they will have to start the recruitment process all over again, and that is not easy when people do not have flexibility to move around,” she said. “Children’s services staff, and all the people [being supported] are not getting the service that they should do.”
A spokesperson for Northamptonshire Unison said the news of Thomas’s departure and the trust’s delay meant “more uncertainty for staff”.
But, the spokesperson added, the union had been “hugely concerned” about the children’s services trust commencing operations at a time when the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave was likely to be far from over.
“We had felt the timescales were wrong even before the national lockdown came into effect,” the spokesperson said, welcoming the fact that the organisation’s establishment will not now be rushed through.
‘We need to bridge a gap’
DfE commissioner Christie, who also chairs Birmingham’s children’s services trust, said: “We would like to congratulate James on his appointment as Tower Hamlets’ DCS. We are very pleased for him and think Tower Hamlets has made an excellent appointment.
“In early March, we asked James to come and help us with the set-up of the children’s trust on an interim basis at NCC, in the full knowledge that he had applied for the job in Tower Hamlets, and that we would likely only have the benefit of his presence for a few months,” Christie added.
“Recruitment for the role continued during James’ time with us but the appointment of a permanent trust chief executive has now been delayed because of the need to prioritise the Covid-19 crisis response,” he said. “We are now considering what arrangements we will need to make to bridge the gap when James leaves at the end of June, ahead of being able to make a permanent appointment.”