The Department for Education has appointed a commissioner to work with Bradford council’s children’s services after Ofsted reported a “slow pace” of improvement since its ‘inadequate’ rating three years ago.
It issued a statutory direction last week appointing former Leeds director of children’s services Steve Walker as commissioner, with a remit to determine, by January 2022, whether Bradford should retain control of its children’s services.
Ofsted inspectors rated the West Yorkshire authority as ‘inadequate’ in 2018 after they found services had “rapidly deteriorated” over the previous 12 months, with “serious failures in social work practice” leaving children at risk of significant harm.
Following this, the DfE issued an improvement notice to the council and appointed an adviser to work with it to deliver an “appropriate and sustainable” improvement plan until the education secretary deemed that it was “no longer required”.
But in a series of monitoring visits since then, Ofsted has found that insufficient progress has been made by the council, leading the DfE to issue a direction and appoint a commissioner. Bradford must now comply with any instructions from Walker or the education secretary in relation to improving its children’s social care services.
‘Slow pace of improvement’
Ofsted’s latest report, following a monitoring visit to the council in April, said: “There have been four previous monitoring visits, which have all reported on the slow pace of change in improving the quality of core social work practice.
“Although the service has been restructured and there has been significant investment in staffing and service improvement planning, due to the breadth and depth of the inadequacy identified in 2018, this has not led to sufficient positive change for some children.”
Inspectors found delays in the council’s completion of assessments, which they said led to the council not identifying risk, need and early intervention quickly enough.
More positively, Ofsted found that caseloads were reducing for most social workers and the now permanent senior leadership team had driven improvements in training, quality assurance and performance management.
However, the DfE said that the slow progress found by Ofsted, coupled with the poor practice it identified in separate inspections of two council-run children’s homes, resulting in a decision to suspend one home and rate the other ‘inadequate’, contributed to its decision to issue the direction.
Former Leeds DCS appointed
Walker was the DCS at Leeds from 2016-20, during which time he steered it to an ‘outstanding’ rating, and now leads its strengthening families, protecting children improvement programme.
In his new role, he will write a review, by January 2022, into whether Bradford is capable, and has capacity, continue to deliver children’s social care, after which the government will decide whether it should keep control of its services.
Kersten England, chief executive of Bradford council, said Walker’s “experience, knowledge and independent findings” would help the council to make improvements more quickly.
‘Much more to do’
“Ofsted has acknowledged that we are seeing some improvements in our children’s services but we know that we have much more to do before they are at the level that we, or our children, should expect,” she said.
“As our district recovers from the pandemic, it is our top priority to make sure that our children get the best start in life. We are determined to do this quickly and the commissioner’s appointment is an important step to achieving this.”
Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of the council, said Walker has “vast experience and will bring a good insight into what more the service can do to accelerate improvement”.
“Everyone at the council is committed to making sure that our children get the best support possible,” she said.
“We have invested heavily to make sure the service is able to make the changes necessary to deliver that improvement and as councillors we will challenge the service to deliver this at pace.”
First visit to trust
Meanwhile, Ofsted has visited Northamptonshire Children’s Trust for the first time since it took over the running of services in the area last year.
The trust runs children’s services services for West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire unitary councils, which were created in April when the former Northamptonshire County Council was split in two.
Northamptonshire Children’s Trust was formed after Ofsted rated the former county-wide authority as ‘inadequate’ in 2019 and reported that its children’s services were “failing to keep children safe”.
In its latest visit, inspectors noted that that the quality of social work practice was improving in the trust’s children’s safeguarding and disabled children’s teams in West Northamptonshire, “although it still varies in quality”.
But they also said social workers’ “frequency and quality of direct work with children” to inform their assessments and plans varied.
In the North Northamptonshire report, inspectors said that trust senior leaders had achieved “tangible progress, which continues to gain traction in improving the experiences, progress and outcomes for children”.
But regulators noted that some children experienced “too many changes of social worker, making it harder for them to develop trusting, positive relationships”.