Council takes children’s services back from country’s first trust

Doncaster council will regain direct control of children’s services after agreeing with trust that current model is hindering progress and as Ofsted downgrades borough

A Doncaster skyline
A Doncaster skyline (image: Harleyamber / Wikimedia Commons)

England’s first independent children’s trust is to close with the council taking services back in-house.

Doncaster Children’s Services Trust (DCST), set up in 2014, is transferring provision back to the council after the organisations agreed the current model was hindering progress and as Ofsted downgraded services from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’, with leadership rated inadequate.

The inspectorate said the two organisations had overseen a decline in performance, with the “contracted arrangements” between the council and trust failing to sustain quality, in a report last week following an inspection in February, Ofsted.

Doncaster council’s cabinet approved plans at the end of March to bring services back in-house, with the authority set to regain total control by September, terminating the trust’s contract with the authority two years early by mutual consent.

Trust model ‘hindering’ progress

A report to the cabinet said the last few years had seen a decline in the trust’s performance and financial position and that the current model was not sustainable and a barrier to improvement.

Though the council had implemented a “robust contract management cycle” since taking ownership of the trust in 2019, the report said current governance arrangements limited the authority’s ability to challenge poor performance.

In its report, Ofsted criticised the council’s scrutiny of the trust, saying that, though this had become more robust since July 2020, “the impact of this challenge has only recently gained traction”.

The council cabinet report also said “a lack of professional curiosity at all levels”, a “lack of organisational resilience” and the implementation of a new IT system within children’s services had hampered progress.

This was also echoed in the Ofsted report, which said failures in the implementation of the case management system last year meant children’s records and performance records were inaccurate and staff were forced to use time-consuming manual workarounds.

Unmet need

Overall, Ofsted found that too many children’s needs had gone unmet with some experiencing drift and delay in their plans progressing.

“Leaders and managers do not have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of the circumstances for all children they support, nor the quality and impact of the service they provide,” it said.

In a statement before the cabinet approved the plans to bring services back in-house, the authority’s statutory director of children’s services, Riana Nelson, said performance had improved in recent months in areas including early help.

But she added: “In order to take this to the next level what we now need is to be able to adapt and improve at an even quicker pace and we do not want to be impeded by a working model that could potentially slow down our aspirations for children across the borough.”

‘Significant budgetary pressure’

The council cabinet report also said that DCST’s services were a “significant budgetary pressure” for the authority and were forecast to be overspent by £6.26m in 2021-22, mainly as a result of care placements.

The council’s corporate director of resources, Debbie Hogg, said bringing services back in-house would yield “considerable” financial benefits, through lower overheads that directed more spending to the front line.

The council said it would seek to retain the independent identity the trust had established, by creating a “ring-fenced” children’s services operation within the authority.

Its cabinet report said this would “provide an opportunity to drive practice improvement at pace with minimal disruption as to how children service delivery and feel”.

No redundancies

The council promised to consult staff “extensively” over the next six months, along with trade union representatives, and stressed there would be no loss of jobs, as all posts would be transferred to the council as the new employer.

Nelson, who has become chief executive of the trust, said: “We do understand that many staff will feel concerned about this proposed transition, and we will be holding detailed discussions with them so that they understand what will be happening and the far reaching benefits this transition can bring.

“The leadership teams at the council and the trust are exceptionally proud to have such a dedicated workforce and we will continue to engage with staff throughout this process.”

A spokesperson for Unison in Doncaster said they were in discussions with the council over the change but expected there to be no redundancies or changes to terms and conditions of employment.

They said they supported the move for services to return to council control. “Our view has always been that children’s services should be run by the local authority and we’re pleased that Doncaster council has acknowledged that the reasons for the creation of the trust no longer exist,” they said.

First children’s trust

The Department for Education ordered services in Doncaster be moved from the council to England’s first trust in 2013, after an independent review found a “culture of failure and disillusion that pervades” the borough’s children’s services, obstructing “every attempt at reform”.

This followed successive Ofsted reports rating children’s services as inadequate.

In 2015, the year after the trust’s establishment, Ofsted judged its services to be inadequate, but upgraded Doncaster to good after an inspection in November 2017.

The trust was initially set up as an independent company, but since 2019 has been under the council’s arms-length ownership, though operationally separate.

The DfE’s intervention in Doncaster ended in 2021, enabling the council to choose to bring services back in-house.

DfE: ‘Disappointing decline’

In response to the latest Ofsted report, the DfE said it was “disappointed” to see that the “quality and oversight of children’s services has deteriorated” since DCST moved to council ownership.

“The decision to close Doncaster Children’s Services Trust is a decision for the council. The children’s minister is writing to the mayor of Doncaster to seek assurances that the improvement of children’s services continues robustly and urgently, and we will continue to work closely with the council to support this,” it said.

But trust chair Tony Hunter said: “Quite simply, the reasons why the trust had to be set up eight years ago no longer apply, and now is the time to draw services together under the council’s leadership.

“This is the best way of working in fully joined up ways which help Doncaster’s children, young people and families live best possible lives and achieve their full potential.”

Remaining outsourced services

The move will leave 10 children’s services being run outside of council control, in Birmingham, Kingston, Northamptonshire, Reading, Richmond, Sandwell, Slough, Sunderland, Windsor and Maidenhead and Worcestershire.

Bradford has agreed to join them after a government-appointed commissioner concluded last year that the council lacked the capacity and capability to improve services on its own at pace.

However, West Sussex is no longer at risk of losing control of its services, after its government-appointed commissioner concluded this would be detrimental to the progress that the authority was making.


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