Removing a council’s ‘inadequate’ children’s services would “distract from its improvement”, and its new leadership team should be given the chance to make progress, the government has been advised.
Sefton’s Department for Education-appointed commissioner, Paul Moffat, has recommended that the DfE should not turn the Merseyside authority’s services over to an independent trust or invite another council to take them over, in a report completed in September but published last week.
However, Moffat said that the option of removal should not be ruled out and warned that Sefton would need ongoing government oversight for the “foreseeable future” to tackle significant management and practice problems.
The DfE sent Moffat into the authority in June, with a remit to determine whether it had the capacity and capability to improve over a reasonable timescale or whether it should have its services removed, after Ofsted rated it ‘inadequate’ across the board.
‘Serious failures’ identified by Ofsted
In an inspection in February and March, the inspectorate found “serious and widespread failures” in safeguarding, creating delays in meeting the needs of “highly vulnerable children”, in part due to a lack of social workers and lack of management oversight.
There was also “widespread and unnecessary delays in securing timely permanence” for children in care, too many of whom were in placements that had not been fully assessed as safe or suitable to meet their needs. It also said a “lack of stable, senior management” had left the service in a “precarious” state.
Moffat reviewed the council’s progress from June to September this year. This followed the appointment of a new director of children’s services, Martin Birch, who was part of the leadership team at Sunderland’s Together for Children trust that oversaw its journey from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ from 2018-21. Moffat said Sefton had also appointed “talented and experienced” assistant directors to bolster leadership capacity, along with a new principal social worker.
‘Good start’ to improvement
He concluded that the authority had “made a good start to its improvement work” through its new leadership, as well as demonstrating a “readiness to accept support, the start of a cultural shift and sound actions to construct its improvement programme”.
And while some staff and frontline managers had had an “us and them” experience with previous interim senior managers, Moffat said that social workers had welcomed the openness and visibility of the new leadership team.
However, he warned that Sefton’s progress “remains hampered by workforce challenges, quality of practice, which is still not good enough, and as yet ineffective and unaligned improvement mechanisms”.
On the workforce, Moffat said there was still an overreliance on agency staff and managed service teams – groups of interim staff generally brought in to tackle capacity or performance issues.
Need to review pay rates in ‘competitive’ recruitment market
While Sefton had “constructive” plans to recruit to key roles, he said it would need to review its pay rates and benefits given the “highly competitive” recruitment situation in the wider region.
On practice, Moffat found that assessments were still – as identified by Ofsted – descriptive and lacking in analysis, with understanding of family history a particular learning need, while plans still often lacked purpose and were insufficiently focused on the individual child.
He also found significant learning and development gaps around the law and court work, including in relation to the public law outline and court reporting.
Moffat said leaders were aware of the issues and were in the process of revising practice standards, and he also praised Sefton’s plans to set up a social work academy and its work with Leeds council to implement the restorative Family Valued model.
However, he said they needed to put in place a “comprehensive practice learning programme” to help embed a learning culture.
Significant lack of audit capacity
The commissioner also found significant problems with oversight, with the council, at the time, outsourcing all case audits to just three auditors, meaning insufficient checks were done to provide Sefton with reliable assurance. The authority was planning to transfer this work to two practice development workers.
However, Moffat said: “The council needs much greater capacity for this function, including the extension of auditing function into the whole of the management cohort, and sufficient administrative capacity to drive audit function and the tracking, analysis and reporting which will support the learning and assurance cycle.”
While funding for children’s social care in the borough had risen from £32.5m to £52m from 2016-17 to 2022-23, the council faced mounting demand on the back of Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and the legacy of past failure, said Moffat.
And though the council had warned that it lacked the flexibility to invest in children’s services without reducing funding elsewhere, Moffat said it needed to commit additional investment over the next three to five years. Otherwise, it will “struggle to provide the improvement capacity required to address the very significant changes required”.
Need for fellow council to support improvement
While concluding the council should retain control of its services, Moffat said it needed a suitably qualified partner authority to support it to make progress, addition to existing help from Leeds council.
The DfE will shortly publish its response to Moffat’s report, including his recommendation for Sefton to keep control of its services, through a revised statutory direction setting out the terms for its intervention in the borough’s services.
In its response to the report, Sefton said it expected the DfE to appoint a new commissioner to replace Moffat in overseeing and directing its services.
Welcoming Moffat’s report and his support, Mhairi Doyle, Sefton’s cabinet member for children’s social care, said the authority had made “significant changes” to the service, including since Moffat completed his report in September.
She said his report showed the authority had “the capacity and capability” to deliver services through DCS Birch and his team.
Birch himself added that, while the authority “still has far to go on its improvement journey”, he was pleased the commissioner had acknowledged it had made a good start, and that he was confident the authority could turn its services around.
“Our staff are our most important asset, and I’m really pleased to hear that they are now feeling reassured, with a renewed sense of optimism,” he added. Feedback from our staff has included that the management team are more open, visible and approachable, managers are listening, and it feels like a good place to work.”