Northamptonshire’s children’s services will move over to a new trust within a year after Ofsted result

Alex Hopkins, director of children's services at the county council
Alex Hopkins, director of children's services at the county council
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The chief of Northamptonshire County Council’s children’s services says its “requires improvement” rating will enable the department to split off into a mutual company within a year.

Earlier this morning it was announced the county’s under fire children’s services had climbed out of its inadequate Ofsted rating, making improvements “across all areas.”

Alex Hopkins

Alex Hopkins

Had it not done so the Government could have been drafted in to run the department.

But the improvements have come at a price.

The Ofsted report states the council has ploughed £62 million into children’s services over the past three years - not far short of the amount the entire authority needs to save in 2016/17 to balance the books.

A total 43 per cent of the department’s social workers are still drafted in from agencies, some of whom are paid double that of their directly employed counterparts.

Alex Hopkins

Alex Hopkins

But the rating means the county council’s plans to move all of children’s services over to a mutual company, a move largely criticised by the Labour opposition at County Hall, will now begin.

Director of children’s services, Alex Hopkins, said: “We are looking at actually setting up the trust by April next year.

“But there is a lot to do and we will be borrowing good ideas from other authorities that have done the same.

“I see the setting up of the trust as the next step in our improvement.”

Mr Hopkins said the trust will allow the council to attract “a cohort of permanent workers” by offering social workers better incentives to join the company, over and above what the council can currently do.

Labour says the trust plan is a step towards privatising children’s services.

The Ofsted report criticises the council’s continuing reliance on agency staff to plug a shortage of skilled children’s social workers.

It praises the council’s social work academy for training new employees and improving the training given to existing staff. But it can only take on a cohort of around 30 trainee social workers at Riverside House every year.

Mr Hopkins said the improved rating will help attract more permanently employed staff.

He said: “We were very up front about that. This report will really help. People think long and hard before moving jobs and coming to an authority with an inadequate rating.

“People would much rather come to a council that requires improvement.

“That inadequate rating also put things in place (special measures) that make good social work difficult.”

Indeed, though an immediate crisis has been averted in children’s services - the Ofsted inspectors found much work to be done.

The report states children awaiting custody court hearings face too many “unnecessary delays,” private fostering is “poorly responded to” and children and who go missing from out of county placements do not receive the high-quality service provided for those who live in county.

Inspectors also found the quality of social work to be “variable,” with “much that needs further strengthening.”

It also found regular assessments of young people in care were not being completed. For some it has been “some years since their last formal assessment.”

In 2015, six basic standards were introduced by the council and as a result, all children and young people are now allocated to social workers who have more “manageable caseloads.”

However the report states: “In many cases there were gaps or the supervision was poor, there were issues about the frequency or quality of visits and plans were not sufficiently focused.”

The inspection report made 17 recommendations from ensuring adopters are “well prepared” to receive young people in their households to strengthening the arrangements for in-care children who go missing.

Mr Hopkins said the council has already started work in the 17 areas.

He said: “The quality of social work is down to the quality of staff and quality of support.

“Our staff have done a fantastic job to improve that work.

“It’s just they need to do more of that.”