The findings of a focused visit to Northamptonshire which was carried out in October were sent in a letter from inspector Brenda McLaughlin to Cathi Hadley, the county council’s director of children’s services.
A previous full inspection, published in June 2019, had rated the services inadequate. Since then, a new Children’s Trust has been set up, and last month took on the handling of children’s services ahead of the county council’s abolition and replacement by two unitary councils for the West and North of the county.
In the letter to Ms Hadley, the inspector said: “Despite unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, inspectors found convincing evidence that services for children and young people in Northamptonshire are starting to improve, albeit from a very low base.
“Committed leaders know their services well and they have cogent plans in place to address the wide-ranging areas for improvement. They are working diligently to address the serious and widespread safeguarding concerns that were identified at the inspection in June 2019, and to sustain the improvements that they have achieved in the past year. There are
no additional priority actions or areas for improvement other than those identified at the previous inspection.”
The 2019 inspection found that there was a range of ‘significant weaknesses’ in services that were central to protecting children. It added that there were highly vulnerable children in care living in ‘unregulated placements that are unsafe and unsuitable’ and that a small cohort of care leavers were vulnerable and homeless, and services had failed to prevent them from remaining in unsuitable and unsafe circumstances.
At the time of this latest visit in October, there were roughly 1,100 children in care in Northamptonshire, with just over 200 children having entered care in the last six months. The inspection was largely remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with inspectors using video and telephone to discuss the service with social workers, leaders, managers, children and their parents.
The latest visit found that responses to children at immediate risk of harm are ‘effective and timely’ and that when children require further help and protection, cases are passed swiftly to the duty and assessment teams (DAAT).
But it found that caseloads for those on the DAAT team remained too high. The letter states: “Several practitioners were responsible for more than 35 children. At the time of the visit, the average caseload was 26, with individual caseloads peaking after staff have been on duty
for a week.
“Staff strive to provide children with a responsive service, but inevitably there are delays in progressing casework and a negative impact on the quality of assessments as a result of the continuously high workload. Senior managers are continuing to take action by providing additional resources to improve caseload management, and they have ensured that no cases are unallocated. However, they and elected members accept that, unless caseloads are manageable, it will be more difficult to sustain the requisite improvements.”
Proposals to increase the proportion of permanent staffing within Children First Northamptonshire and reduce reliance on agency staff form part of the draft budget for the new unitary councils.