Council at risk of losing control of children’s services as DfE sends in commissioner

Government appointee to determine whether Sefton has capability to improve in light of Ofsted report that found lack of social work capacity was leaving children inadequately protected

Bootle Town Hall
Bootle Town Hall, Sefton (photo: Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons)

A council is at risk of losing control of its children’s services after the government intervened in the light of a damning Ofsted report.

The Department for Education (DfE) has appointed a commissioner, Paul Moffat, to oversee and direct improvements at Sefton council, and also to determine whether it has the capacity and capability to improve itself over the long term.

Ofsted rated Sefton inadequate earlier this month, following an inspection in February that found a lack of social work capacity was leaving children inadequately protected, and widespread failings that were not “sufficiently understood” by leaders.

On the basis of this, the DfE issued a statutory direction this week concluding that the authority was failing to perform its children’s social care functions to an adequate standard.

‘Presumption’ services will be removed

In the light of Ofsted rating Sefton inadequate across the board, the DfE’s direction said: “There is a presumption in cases of persistent or systemic failure that children’s social care services will be removed from local authority control in order to bring about sustainable improvement, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so.”

Under the direction, Sefton must comply with Moffat’s instructions relating to its improvement and co-operate in his review to determine whether “the most effective way of securing and sustaining improvement in Sefton is to remove the control of children’s social care services from the council”.

Sefton had been under a non-statutory improvement notice since last year, in which the DfE told it to create an improvement plan addressing shortcomings previously identified by Ofsted and deliver on these by May 2022, with the support of a government-appointed adviser.

However, this has now been withdrawn, and replaced by the statutory direction, in the light of the Ofsted inspection outcome.

‘Much to do’ but confident of improvement – new DCS

Ofsted roundly criticised the quality of leadership at Sefton, and said “a lack of stable, senior management” had left the service in a “precarious” state.

A new director of children’s services, Martin Birch, started in post last month, pledging to improve.

In the light of the statutory direction, Birch said: “We welcome the appointment of a commissioner, and appreciate the support and challenge that this role will bring.

“Since the Ofsted inspection was carried out, we have already started to work on the feedback in the report, and are developing an improvement action plan which will be published late summer this year.”

He pointed to the investment – worth an additional £10m in 2021-22 – the council had made in children’s services, adding: “Of course, there is still much work to, but we are confident that with our committed workforce, and the significant financial investment that the council has recently committed to children’s services, our ambitious plans can be delivered, and improvements made at pace.

“We are hopeful that the commissioner will see a marked improvement in the delivery of our services each time they visit.”

Financial and workforce pressures

Cabinet member for children’s social care Mhairi Doyle said the council had faced “unprecedented” demand for children’s services over the past two years and, like most authorities, continued to face “severe financial challenges”.

She said Sefton and other authorities in the Liverpool city region had collectively urged the government to tackle issues with social work recruitment and retention “as these present a significant challenge not just in our region, but across other parts of the country”.

Doyle added: “I hope that the commissioner is able to appreciate how this compounds an already difficult operating environment, and I look forward to working with them to tackle the many challenges we face, so that children in Sefton benefit from the best services possible, making sure they are safe, protected and inspired to reach their full potential.”

Mixed picture on outsourcing as review urges tougher intervention

The intervention in Sefton comes amid a mixed picture for the outsourcing of children’s services to alternative providers:

Care review lead Josh MacAlister

Care review lead Josh MacAlister

Meanwhile, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has urged the DfE to take a tougher approach to intervening in struggling authorities.

In its final report this week, the review, led by Josh MacAlister, called for the DfE to lower the threshold for intervening in councils beyond those rated inadequate across the board to others receiving the bottom grade overall.

Over the longer-term, intervention should be extended to authorities repeatedly rated requires improvement.

Being ‘requires improvement’ persistently is ‘not good enough’

“We should be clear that local authorities being persistently “requires improvement” is not good enough and if local authorities are not able to improve and are not accepting support, then this should be a trigger for intervention,” said the review.

It also called for commissioners – who are currently appointed to work with specific authorities – to be refashioned as regional improvement commissioners, with responsibility for driving progress in their regions.

The review said forthcoming DfE research would highlight inconsistencies in how commissioners worked with authorities and issues with councils receiving support from a proliferation of advisers.

It added that its proposed approach would give  commissioners “skin in the game” in achieving improvement across a region and a deeper understanding of the issues facing individual authorities.

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2 Responses to Council at risk of losing control of children’s services as DfE sends in commissioner

  1. Alec Fraher May 27, 2022 at 11:22 am #

    All Councils, and I mean all the 169 or so, in England have since the mid-nouhhties sat on their hands when tackling the Governance of Children’s Services. The, then, push was towards increased regionalisation leaving local authorities with the responsibility but no clear line of accountability..

    Children’s Trust were, in fact, a technical and legal way of circumventing the, then, professional facination with Commissioning as a panacea to all ills. Known as a Tefal Exemption, Children’s Trusts became the preferred route out of avoiding the near complete dereliction of Local Authority Standing Orders. It was the closest, in comparison to the Enron, a scandle with more than a blind eyes turned and a ‘family and friends only’ attitude to lucrative contracts by the, then, sector leaders, BASW included..

    SOLACE and Senior Procurement Officers warned of such in May 2007. The many Local Authority CEOs and s151 Officers I met were beside themselves, describing the sector as having more in common with the construction industry than believable and acceptable..

    This persists today. Tinkering, as has happened with the Care Review, will create a new kaleidoscopic view of social work but not address the rather more serious issues of State liabilities for causing the conditions which cause harm.

    We have known this for decades. The constitutional dereliction matched by the poverty of thinking that blights the industry as a whole.

    LASSA, if not unworkable now will be by 2030. Any behavioural scientist would tell you so. Unless, Social Work, is recast, epistemologically, , as a Mesoscopic Evaluation of society the inevitable intractable policy controversies, or more to the point children’s deaths, will not be reconciled.

    Social Work is a broad church with many entry and exist routes, it is not a segregated avtivity, conducted for certain g
    hours, in certain places, with certain people. It is central to the aim of the society, and especially complex society.

    For cpd see Complex Society) In the Middle of the Middle World by Bojan Radej and Mojca Golobic or even better contact the author for a feature article.

    *I was a founder member of the Institute of Commissioning Professionals, now a division of the Institute of Health Care Managers and was 1of3, nationally,, to undertake a review of the contracting and procurement of Children’s Services in 2007. And in the interests of transparency Bojan Radej is a colleague and friend*

  2. Alec Fraher June 5, 2022 at 6:14 pm #

    I am sure, in fact damn sure, that the review is nothing more than an extension of the early category sourcing programmes; perpetuating the Idea of a market answer, using children and in particular adoption and fostering to create pseudo markets in care.

    The key difference is a departure from an EU driven path dependency and towards the US model of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

    Ordinarily, when there’s an abuse of position by a particular provider, say Frontline, one could ask the Competition Authorities to investigate. In this instance the misuse of advertising protocol the use of children and insider information to further this end, as happened in the FT Weekend (4th June).

    Sure, who’s really going to knock anyone trying to improve the lot of children, McAllister, afterall, is ónly saying what most believe.

    As ever, the devil is in the details.

    In this instance there’s a couple of notables.

    Firstly, children, like anyone else, aren’t ‘lots’ as if in an auction and there’s absolutely no accurate CPV code or pricure procedure for such services.

    And, secondly, the use and abuse of advertising, by Government and its emanations, like Frontline, is in competition law illegal. it is illegal on two counts, firstly, there is no relevant market and secondly, the re-use of information gathered for one reason ie social protection for commercial and economic activity is dubious. Where’s the Information Commissioner when you need them? More, critically where’s the Children’s Commissioner? If, Josh McAllister and Camilla Cavendish are to be believed this detail is too important to ignore. Especially when
    the new chair of the Competition Authorities is also the CEO of the Boston Consulting Group.

    Councils would do well to check out the class actions being brought against US authorities, like Seattle.

    UK advocates need to step up. I have said this before, Children’s Services commissioning makes Enron look like a walk in the park. It is also very similar in nature to the substantive issues, financial, structural and cultural that the Irish Inquiry into Child Abuse exposed.