There is “no case” for taking Middlesbrough’s children’s services out of council control in the wake of an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgment, a government-appointed commissioner has concluded.
In a scathing report published in January this year, inspectors found services on Teesside had seriously deteriorated and warned of “a culture in which harm is tolerated”. They found particular problems around Middlesbrough’s approach to risk and response to chronic neglect.
But a new review by Peter Dwyer, a former director of children’s services at North Yorkshire council, said Middlesbrough “should be commended” for its response to Ofsted’s assessment of its failings.
“The LA has many existing skilled knowledgeable staff within the organisation and partners are demonstrating greater levels of capacity and appetite for the delivery of collective improvement,” Dwyer wrote.
“At the same time the organisation has been seeking to deliver improvement during the unparalleled challenges posed by Covid-19,” he added. “There is no evidence of a currently dysfunctional political or corporate environment that would support the case of ‘freeing’ the children’s leadership from local control.”
‘Holy Grail’ chasing
Dwyer’s review noted that the very poor overall performance identified by Ofsted inspectors during their late-2019 visit to Middlesbrough did not reflect a consistent longer-term picture, and that wider factors affecting children’s services – with 30% of Middlesbrough’s wards within the most deprived 1% in England – had to be considered.
Covid response may have ‘helpfully reinforced’ change
Independent children’s commissioner Peter Dwyer dedicated a separate annex in his review of Middlesbrough’s children’s services, completed in April, to the council’s response to coronavirus. He noted that the enforced changes to working methods, which all councils have faced this spring, may actually have “helpfully reinforced” some aspects of enacting cultural change, while acknowledging the extra strain placed on services by Covid-19.
Dwyer praised the council’s detailed projections of how staffing reductions – which reached 10% early in lockdown – might affect service delivery, and its “meaningful focus” on how the needs of different groups and individuals should be prioritised.
“Recognition of the vulnerability of particular services with specialist skills has seen… plans to operate more closely with adults’ services and health to proactively plan for challenges,” the review said.
“The technology available to staff is of a good standard and this has enabled effective working from home to be achievable,” the report added. “A combination of face-to-face meetings with children and contact technologically is being undertaken. There is still a firm commitment to complete statutory responsibilities.”
But there were nonetheless service areas that were persistently under-performing, the review found.
“There have been clear omissions in delivering the consistent quality of collective political and managerial leadership required to embed and sustain improvements in chidren’s services,” Dwyer wrote.
He found that the Labour administration in power up to 2019 “may have become distracted or it is suggested, somewhat complacent”, leading to less scrutiny for children’s services, and it was then replaced by an inexperienced independent-run political leadership that was “ill-equipped” to tackle previous deficiencies.
Also, senior officers reporting to a “very hardworking and experienced” director of children’s services (DCS) had been variable in quality, leading to the DCS acting down to fill these deficiencies. Dwyer also found “a grasping at ‘Holy Grail’ initiatives without sufficient attention
or prioritisation and subsequent weaknesses in the embedding of improvement”.
“When change becomes the norm people just ignore the latest fad,” one staff member was quoted as saying.
Dwyer’s review also found a somewhat fragmented picture existed within children’s services, with strong and cohesive teams being undermined by silos between them. There were also “historic deficiencies” in joint working between children’s services and corporate council staff.
Reflecting this picture, Middlesbrough’s adoption of the No Wrong Door programme that supports young people in or on the edge of care had been managed from outside the children’s services directorate. In recent years, the review found, the council’s care population had spiralled out of control, with a 30% increase from May 2018 to December 2019
Workforce ‘cares deeply’
But in the wake of Ofsted’s visit, Dwyer said Middlesbrough’s response had been impressive, with “no challenge” to the highly critical verdict.
Strong new appointments had been made to senior roles, backed with an annual £3.6m budget increase plus an additional £3.3m over two years to enhance leadership and performance management capacity. A new lead member for children’s services had also been appointed bringing “considerable energy, competence and relevant experience”, with the Local Government Association engaged to provide a package of training and support to elected members.
Within the frontline workforce, Dwyer found there remained a “considerable cohort” of people from the locality who “[cared] deeply” about the area and the council. Unlike with many authorities that have received adverse Ofsted judgments, there was not an excessive use of agency workers, with staff being supported by decent office and equipment infrastructure and a new career progression framework.
In response to a specify request by the DfE to review Middlesbrough’s participation in No Wrong Door, Dwyer uncovered weaknesses in identification of cases and in interventions. But he said the potential of the model to help with improvements in Middlesbrough outweighed these concerns.
“The need to enhance the range of interventions available and creatively respond to the needs of vulnerable young people on the edge of care is greater here than in almost any [other] LA,” he wrote. But Dwyer added that the programme’s success would hinge on broad and deep support across the local authority’s leadership and that of partner organisations.
‘The result we wanted’
Responding to the review findings, Middlesbrough’s elected mayor, Andy Preston, reiterated that there were “no excuses for letting Middlesbrough children down”.
Preston expressed his gratitude for the work undertaken by Dwyer, which the DfE has extended for at least another year.
“Retaining control of the service is the result we wanted, but we know how much work is still required,” Preston said. “We’ve got big ambitions for Middlesbrough and those ambitions are all about the future of our young people.”
Antony High, the new elected member with responsibility for children’s services, added: “As the commissioner said in his report, children and young people in Middlesbrough need access to the highest quality of services and that is what we intend to deliver.
“There’s a lot of work to do and we’re determined to put things right,” High said. “The commitment of our staff has never been in doubt and they will give their all to turn this situation around.”