Imminent Ofsted inspection could rule children's services in St Helens 'inadequate'

An imminent inspection of childrens services in St Helens may rule the service inadequate
An imminent inspection of childrens services in St Helens may rule the service inadequate

An imminent inspection of children’s services in St Helens may rule the service ‘inadequate’, a report has warned.

Ofsted delivered a damning verdict of the town’s children’s services in August 2018 following a focused visit to review the services for children in need.

The watchdog said the visit confirmed that “entrenched cultural, management and social work practices” were negatively impacting on children’s outcomes.

In response, Ofsted issued three out of a possible four priority actions to the local authority alongside a comprehensive action plan.

In September cabinet approved an immediate £800,000 investment in the service alongside the endorsement of the devised action plan.

And in October cabinet approved £2million of ongoing funds and an additional allocation of £6million into the children’s reserve.

A second focused visit, looking at the ‘front door’ element of the service, took place in November.

Following the visit, inspectors praised the council for taking “swift action” in response to its previous inspection and did not issue any priority actions.

A new cabinet report goes on to say that a full, two-week Ofsted inspection, which will review all aspects of children’s social care services, is expected “imminently”.

If inspected now, the report adds, it is likely that elements of the service would be found to be inadequate.

The report says: “Ofsted are due to return to complete a full inspection imminently and whilst no judgment has yet been reached, our own diagnostic work and ongoing activity continues to highlight areas of practice and service delivery that require significant improvement.

“Whilst the council can evidence that it has responded quickly and effectively to the initial priority actions and has implemented a comprehensive action plan, the scale and the depth of the change that is required to improve practice may mean that the regulator judges that the services are inadequate.”

This week, cabinet were updated on the progress of the improvement works from Cllr Joe Pearson, cabinet member for developing young people.

Coun Pearson said there has been “significant growth” in demand for children’s social care in recent years, set against a backdrop of shrinking budgets.

Coun Pearson said: “Significant activity has been undertaken since July 2018, including the establishment of an improvement board; commissioning of diagnostic support to understand and respond to the emerging issues and release of council reserves and the targeting of all available resources to support the improvements required.

“Despite this, the report is direct in its appraisal of the current situation in that there is still much work to do – and this needs to be delivered at pace.”

The cabinet report says that since the initial focused visit in July, the number of children in need has increased to 1,883, as of December 31, 2018.

This is a 20 per cent increase on the position reported at the end of the previous year.

The number of children on child protections plans has also risen to 180 as of December 31, a rate that is now above the national average.

In addition, the number of looked-after children has increased from 442 to 480 between March and December 2018.

This means that St Helens has the second highest rate of looked-after children in the North West.

To support the ongoing work around children’s services, cabinet members approved £3.5million per annum for 2019-20 on top of the £2million approved in October.

The council said it will look to employ more than 40 new social workers with the additional funds.

This in itself could prove difficult, as highlighted in the report.

Within the North West, the report says, there are a number of local authorities that have expanded their services in response to adverse regulatory findings.

“St Helens is experiencing difficulties in recruitment that could soon be compounded by the activity by neighbouring local authorities – for example Liverpool City Council has recently announced plans to recruit an additional 160 children’s social workers at a cost of £7million,” the report says.

“Children’s services in Liverpool have been reported to be in a position of needing to improve, as is the case in St Helens.

“Retention of staff is a key priority within this context as the market becomes more competitive.”

The report adds that the demand for social workers, combined with a mobile workforce and comparatively lower pay grade base in St Helens, has made recruitment a “significant challenge”.