‘Sorry’ may be the hardest word but it has been on many lips at West Sussex County Council after a damning report into children’s services.
Ofsted rated the services inadequate following a recent inspection and laid out a dozen points for improvement.
With some people calling for an investigation and others calling for resignations, leader Louise Goldsmith said she was ‘absolutely gutted’ by what had happened.
Along with chief executive Nathan Elvery and Paul Marshall, cabinet member for children and young people, she has had weeks to digest the report, which was only made public on Tuesday (May 7), and come up with an action plan.
All work will be carried out under the watchful eye of a Department for Education commissioner, who is expected to be appointed in a fortnight, with Ofsted due to return in December.
But first came the apology.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “The first thing we need to say is we apologise to all those children that are looked after, because they shouldn’t be having a lottery service [where] some people get good service but the majority are not.
“That is unacceptable. I just wanted to lay that on the line.
“I’m absolutely gutted – deeply, deeply disappointed – and there’s been a lot of soul searching going on about how has this happened, why has this happened and what we need to do to make it right, because we can’t stay where we are.”
This is hardly a unique situation for the council.
Over the past ten years, Ofsted’s assessments of children’s services in West Sussex have turned up some pretty poor results.
While Mrs Goldsmith pointed out that this year’s inspection – known as ILACS (inspections of local authority children’s services) – had been ‘totally’ different’ to any done before, the outcome was pretty much the same.
This time, inspector Linda Steele highlighted ‘critical weaknesses’ in how cases of neglect were identified and responded to; ‘serious shortfalls’ in how children in care were looked after; and a ‘deep-rooted culture of non-compliance with basic social work standards’ across the service.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “Yes, we didn’t make it. But we will make it this time. I give my assurance on that.”
So how will they do it?
Mr Elvery said work had started in the autumn, with the creation of an improvement board and the undertaking of a peer review.
That review saw officers and councillors from other authorities examine adult and children’s services in West Sussex, with the latter described as ‘fragile’.
In response, West Sussex pumped £5m into improvements focussed primarily on recruiting social workers and ensuring they didn’t then look for work elsewhere.
A further blow came with the closure of the Seaside Children’s Home, in Shoreham-by-Sea, with Ofsted having identified ‘serious and widespread failures’ in the care offered.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “At the beginning of last year we had two focussed inspections which told us we were doing OK in two particular areas.
“But we knew after we had the Seaside inspection of our children’s home that something wasn’t right.
“So in the autumn we started a programme of improvement.”
The two areas of focus were the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) and the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) strategy.
Mr Elvery said: “Although the report is quite damning in terms of the organisation, it has recognised that in those areas and services such as the MASH, such as children looked after, such as SEND, improvements have been made and have been recognised under a tougher framework of inspection during 2018.
“So it gives me confidence that, where we’ve had our real focus, we have made improvements.
“But we need to make further improvements and we are focussed as an organisation on this being our single highest priority in terms of the children that we look after.”
With so much more to be done, a further £5m is to be spent kick-starting the improvement plan and building on the work already under way.
This includes appointing a new director of children’s services and recruiting a specialist improvement team.
The director, who is a former director of children’s services from Kent, will be the council’s third since January – part of the ‘chronic instability’ highlighted by Ofsted which left children ‘at continued risk of significant harm and with their needs unmet’.
Caroline Fife, of UNISON South East, was concerned that the new director would only be in post on an interim basis.
She said: “You have to ask what is going on when the county council cannot even hold onto its interim directors.”
The investment of another £5m comes mere weeks after the council announced it would be cutting £4.9m from the IPEH (integrated prevention and earliest help) budget over the next two years.
IPEH provides early support for families in need and there were huge concerns when the budget decision was announced.
But Mr Marshall defended the move, saying the money needed to be spent elsewhere within the service ‘particulary children’s social care, and bringing stability around our social work’.
He added: “The challenge is having an early help proposition that is effective at preventing children from going into social care.
“That’s our challenge. To deliver that. But we know we can deliver that with some efficiencies that we can reinvest in the service.”
A lack of experienced social workers is an ongoing national issue and, while West Sussex set up an academy to encourage new blood, a high turnover of staff meant there were still not enough to comfortably cover an ever-increasing workload.
In 2014, West Sussex was supporting 602 looked after children. That figure is now 706.
Ofsted reported that staff turnover and high caseloads ‘severely limited’ the social work being offered.
Mrs Goldsmith bemoaned the timing of the inspection, saying it came too soon for the early improvement work to have a real effect.
She said: “In the report it does say that there was an acceleration of our improvement, but it was not enough for when the inspector came in to show that we were accelerating and moving on.”
Looking to the future, there were the 12 points raised by Ofsted to be addressed.
- Improving the infrastructure and services to support good-quality social work;
- Improve the quality of work to assess, support and protect children who experience neglect;
- Improve the effectiveness of assessment and planning for children in private foster homes and 16/17-year-old homeless people; and
- Improve staff recruitment and retention so that children experience fewer social workers.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “We have to move forward at pace with a plan that will deliver.
“I sit here confident after six weeks of really working on it and working on the team that we’ve got that plan and we will do it.”