The Department for Education (DfE) could take action if sufficient improvements are not made within children’s services in St Helens.
Ofsted rated the borough’s children’s services in ‘inadequate’ back in November following a two-week inspection, despite acknowledging improvements since the focused visit in 2018.
A new St Helens Council report has revealed the inadequate judgement has resulted in the authority receiving a ministerial letter and a Formal Improvement Notice.
This means the council is now in formal intervention with the DfE.
Subsequently, the DfE have reappointed an improvement advisor, who will write to the government minister every six weeks to update them on the progress being made by the council.
Ofsted will also inspect St Helens Council up to six times per year and carry out a full inspection within 18 months.
The council report says if services have not improved by the next full Ofsted inspection, action could be taken by the DfE.
Councillors were given an update on Monday by Professor Sarah O’Brien, strategic director for People’s Services.
Prof O’Brien highlighted numerous challenges the department is facing, but said it was “reassuring” Ofsted acknowledged that improvements had been made since 2018.
She also told councillors on the children and young people’s services overview and scrutiny panel that there are “significant legacy effects” in St Helens.
Prof O’Brien said: “Some of the judgement does reflect years of poor practice.
“And you do not turn that around overnight, which is why I think we’ve made some improvements, but we haven’t yet made all the improvements.
“In addition to that, the pace of change. We have gone fast in the last 18 months, but we need to maintain that pace.
“The pace of change in where we’re working and the level of demand is challenging for staff in the department and staff morale is something we’re working really, really hard to keep up.
“All of these things together will make it difficult to address some of these as quickly as we need to address some of this, and I think it’s important to address this with scrutiny.”
Labour’s Andy Bowden, the former cabinet member for children, families, young people and education, asked whether there will be an opportunity to reflect on the way the council has dealt with children’s social services since 2014, when Ofsted judged that services required improvement.
Labour’s Nova Charlton, cabinet member for protecting young people, said previous scrutiny work could be revisited and further work could be carried out going forward.
Prof O’Brien said the council presented a draft action plan to Ofsted in December, and said the watchdog gave an early indication the plan was “thorough” and covers all the necessary areas.
She revealed that Ofsted has informed the council that it will carry out its next two-day inspection on May 6 and May 7.
The watchdog will focus this visit on the council’s permanence arrangements, something that came in for heavy criticism in the Ofsted’s inspection report.
The children’s improvement board, which was set up following the Ofsted’s damning focused inspection in July 2018 – will continue to meet monthly with an independent chair.
It is expected the DfE will attend on a more regular basis.
Liberal Democrat group leader Teresa Sims said the work carried out to date by the children’s improvement board has been “phenomenal”.
Councillors were also told that the council will draw support from Cheshire West and Chester Council, as part of the government’s Partner in Practice programme.
“It’s already been confirmed that Cheshire West and Chester authority are going to be our partner in practice,” Prof O’Brien said.
“I’ve already met with them. We’ve already scoped out the main areas of focus that I think they need to come and support us with, and they are just drafting up a Memorandum of Understanding.
“That hasn’t yet been signed off and agreed with the DfE, that’s all in process.”
Coun Trisha Long, chairman of the panel, said it is “completely unacceptable” that children and families are not all receiving a good service.
The Labour councillor acknowledged the improvements made since the 2018 Ofsted focused inspection but said there is still a “considerable way to go”.
Prof O’Brien told councillors the volume of demand has continued to rise across the board since July 2018, adding that the number of looked-after children is the highest for “many, many years”.
Recent data from the DfE revealed the number of children in the care of St Helens Council has been rising year on year since 2016.
In 2019, there were 466 children in the care of the authority, at a rate of 127 per 10,000 children under 18.
According to the council’s latest financial monitoring report, there were 534 children in the care of the local authority at the end of October 31, 2019.
Prof O’Brien said the number of referrals that are converting to a child in need or child protection have also increased significantly since July 2018.
She said the pressures are putting significant financial pressures on the council, adding that workforce remains an ongoing challenge.
The council report presented to the scrutiny panel says further financial investment may be required given the level of demand in the service and the urgency needed to address the shortfalls.
The council has already invested heavily in children’s services since the 2018 focused inspection, with cabinet approving an additional £5.5m annually.
Prof O’Brien said work needs to be completed “urgently” with Cllr Charlton to address the investment issue within the next “couple of months”.
She said the costs are all linked to staffing and services on the edge of social services.