Troubled Northamptonshire kids’ service making strides but still likely to be at unacceptable standard next year

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Latest monitoring reports show strides have been made in turning around Northamptonshire’s ‘inadequate’ services for vulnerable children, letters to the Government released today show.

But the councillor in charge of the services said it is very likely to still be rated as unacceptable by next year.

County Councillor Heather Smith, who has been in the role a month, said: “I think we’ve got a slow-step process and it won’t be until next year that we get a full-blown month-long inspection by Ofsted again.

“We don’t want one at the moment, there’s too much work for us still to do.

“But I think it would be absolutely unbelievable for us to go from inadequate to ‘good’. They’re more likely to rate us as needing improvement.

“If we do get to that ‘requires improvement’ standard, I’ll know that we’re going in the right direction. I wouldn’t be unhappy with that.

“I’d like to think we could get to ‘good’ that quickly but until we have a stable workforce in place, I don’t think that will be possible.”

Partly it is because the children’s services were in such dire straits that the turnaround will take so long.

But it is also because the key elements of change that are noted in the newly-released letters - written to the Government by the county safeguarding board - are deep and wide-reaching.

One is a social worker academy, which will train newly-qualified social workers to a much higher standard before they are handed tricky cases and standard caseloads, helping them cope better straightaway than when Ofsted made their dismal findings last year.

However the first entrants only come out the other end in 12 month’s time.

There is also a continuing issue with the relatively high proportion (40 per cent) of agency social care staff - who are both expensive and potentially do not allow the vulnerable children the continuity they need - which Councillor Smith wants to get to zero, or at least much nearer the 12 per cent national average. The council is trying to solve this with an ongoing recruitment drive.

According to education minister Edward Timpson, writing to the safeguarding board, the council also needs to improve relationships with other partners and stronger managing of referrals.

Head of Northamptonshire County Council children’s services Alex Hopkins also said referrals where children turn out not to be in danger are too high, as are caseloads and staff turnover.

However reasons to be optimistic, the Ofsted inspector says, include significantly-improved managerial oversight and guidance of cases; increased practitioner confidence in their managers, a substantial caseload reduction; better quality reports; children’s views much more evident; and evidence that social workers want to stay and work to turn around the services. The latter is being addressed with a package of competitive pay, the academy and protected caseloads levels.

Councillor Smith said: “Although not as many staff as we would like are becoming permanent, but we are fortunate that many agency workers now feel more confident about working in Northamptonshire and are choosing to become permanent employees, which actually means they get less money - and I think that’s a credit to the organisation.”