Blackpool children getting better care as report hails improved performance
A massive overhaul of the way Blackpool protects vulnerable children has seen the council given the go ahead to continue to deliver children’s services in the resort.
The department has been under intense scrutiny since being rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted In January 2019, when an inspection found evidence of children left living in ‘chronic neglect’.
It was the second time in six years the service had received an ‘inadequate’ rating.
An independent review later judged children’s social care should remain under council control but said assessments must continue for at least another year.
Now a final report from children’s commissioner Helen Lincoln, who was put in charge of the review, has ruled there is no need for further intervention on her part.
She said over the past 18 months Blackpool had put in place the building blocks required to enable “substantial and lasting improvement”.
There continues to be “very significant challenges”, but “Blackpool is now responding to the needs of its children and families in more restorative
and problem solving ways”.
Ms Lincoln adds there is “more support from partners and early help to meet children’s needs, so that social worker caseloads are slowly reducing giving them more time to work with children and families with complex needs.”
The commissioner also praised the council’s response to the Covid pandemic by supporting schools and families, adding the “organisation required to deliver this response demonstrates the stronger grip that the council has upon its children’s services.”
Her report was signed off by Children’s Minister Vicky Ford on Wednesday of this week.
Improvements have included investment of £4.3m in extra staff with 107 new social workers recruited in the last two years, bringing average caseloads down from 24 to just under 19.
The Blackpool Families Rock model of working was launched in March last year to take on board the way families in the town would like the service to operate.
This includes stronger partnerships with schools, GPs and the police, as well as an advice line where concerns can be raised informally.
Contact has been maintained throughout the Covid pandemic leading to higher than average school attendance in Blackpool since last June.
The fostering service was recently relaunched and has already led to more people coming forward to foster children, while planning reforms mean smaller children’s home have replaced large scale residential care.
A more stable financial plan – putting more resources into intervention and restoring family relationships – is predicted to control the spiralling cost of children’s services by reducing dependence on residential care.
Blackpool Council leader Coun Lynn Williams said: “We are extremely encouraged by the commissioner’s stamp of approval of the improvements we have made.
“Our director of children’s services, her team and our partners have worked tirelessly to address the challenges identified in the original report.
“We acknowledge that this is not the end of the journey and that there is much more to be done, not just in sustaining the improvements that have been
made, but in taking the quality of delivery of our children’s services to the next level.
“It goes without saying that our priority has, and will always be, the wellbeing of our children and ensuring that they can enjoy the best and happiest life chances.”
The council is now hoping to improve its Ofsted rating to ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ but there is no timescale for when the next inspection will be carried out following the Covid pandemic.
What action has been taken
Among the previous failings highlighted in the report was the council had been taking too many children into care.
The commissioner said the council had put many children and families “through a formal child protection process who did not need it”.
Now the council is working “more restoratively” to keep families together, and using its powers to intervene more strongly only where absolutely necessary.
The Blackpool Families Rock model is based on earlier intervention, social workers being closer to families, and taking on board what families want.
It also relies on input from others involved in a troubled child’s life such as their school teacher, the family GP and the police.
Jeanette Richards, assistant director of children’s services at Blackpool Council, said: “We are trying to work with families in a different way, thinking about what support would look like to prevent the need to escalate to a child protection plan.
“We have worked really hard to reduce caseloads, and there is more to do on that, so you create space for social workers to get to know young people, children and their families really well.
“It’s about really understanding that before you can move to addressing the issues you have to develop a relationship.”
Director of children’s services Diane Booth added: “We have a duty to protect children so in some circumstances we still have to use these procedures.
“But it is less and less. All the checks and balances tell us it is working, that families are more appreciative and we get lots of compliments about our new way of working with them.”
Spending on children’s services has increased to 37 per cent of the total budget, including an extra £6.6m into children’s social care this year, from 26 per cent two years ago.
But demand on the service is around 50 per cent higher than neighbouring authorities, reflecting the town’s high levels of deprivation.
The number of children in care remains high at around 600, but referrals are beginning to reduce with 866 referrals in December 2020, compared to 1,202 in December 2019.
In the last six month 137 children have left care, compared to 72 a year ago.
What the 2019 report said
Leadership came in for heavy criticism from Ofsted in 2019 with the report focusing on deficiencies meaning some children were living “in neglectful circumstances for longer than they should, resulting in their needs often becoming more complex”.
Some homeless teenagers were resorting to sofa-surfing or living in b&bs with the report warning this “increases their exposure to risk”.
Concerns were also raised about child sexual exploitation, children who go missing and youngsters being absent from school.