Blackpool’s failing children’s services will remain under council control after a £5m cash injection.
The Children’s Commissioner, appointed by the government to oversee an overhaul of the service in the wake of a damning Ofsted report earlier this year, said bosses “took their eye off the ball” in 2014, when more attention was given to the economic regeneration of the resort.
In her report to the Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds, Helen Lincoln said the council should harness the “same verve and passion” that helped deliver key infrastructure projects in the town centre to improve the service.
Her decision not to take children’s services out of the council’s control comes six months after it was branded “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors who warned some of the town’s most vulnerable children were living in “chronic neglect”.
It was the second time in six years the council had received the lowest possible Ofsted rating. However, she will remain in post for at least 12 months, with the council’s performance continuing to be heavily monitored. Ms Lincoln said moving to a trust or any other delivery model would not give any additional impetus to the improvement work already in place.
This has included finding an extra £5m in the budget for children’s services, recruiting 65 additional social workers with nine existing vacancies filled, and appointments including a dedicated head of safeguarding.
Director of children’s services Diane Booth, who was appointed in 2017, was credited with reversing a decline in standards between 2014 and 2017.
There had been improvements following the 2012 Ofsted inspection, when the service was branded “inadequate” and in 2014 inspectors upgraded the rating to “requires improvement”.
Leadership came in for criticism in the most recent report, published in January, which said some children were living “in neglectful circumstances for longer than they should, resulting in their needs often becoming more complex”.
Ms Lincoln this week acknowledged the high levels of deprivation in Blackpool placed “very high demand on children’s services”.
She added: “The local authority has over the last decade embarked on an ambitious programme of economic and infrastructural development that is bringing investment and jobs to the town.
“However the local authority has not developed the same level of strategic plan with partners for its children.”
She said “senior leadership of the council took their eye off the ball between 2014 and 2017” when the focus was “on much needed economic and infrastructure regeneration of the town”.
However she had now seen commitment to children’s services becoming a priority with more scrutiny of the way the service is run, and additional funding of £5m to support frontline social workers.
The commissioner’s report, following a three month review which began in March, recommends closer working with the police and schools and a stronger focus on early intervention to improve the service for young people.
It said the Ofsted inspection had provided additional impetus for the political and executive leadership team to hasten the pace of change.
However, it added that it is still “early days” and recommended to the Secretary of State that commissioner oversight should continue with further assessments of progress every six months for at least a year.
In addition, Blackpool will benefit from the usual series of Ofsted monitoring visits to test out its progress.
Council leader Simon Blackburn said he now believed the council was on the right track to secure a “good” rating eventually.
He said: “I am pleased and encouraged the commissioner has recognised the dedication of the children’s social care team and the council’s commitment to improving the life chances of our children and young people.
“At no time have I, or we, shied away from the significant challenges we face in Blackpool and the demands that these place on our children’s services.
“We made it very clear at the time of the Ofsted judgment that we had already put plans in place to address any deficits in our children’s services, but emphasised that we were at the start of a journey, albeit one where the pace of change needed to increase.”
He added that a lot of hard work was required before the council could secure a ‘good’ rating but for the first time he felt the right circumstances were in place.
Ms Booth said: “The 12-week review period has given the commissioner and her colleagues from Essex an opportunity to take a close look at the improvement programme that was already in train and to challenge us on how things might be done differently to add value to that programme.
“This has given us the opportunity to listen and learn, and to incorporate their considered advice into our improvement plan. We have appreciated their support and advice and welcome the continued relationship with the commissioner and her team.”
Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Conservative opposition on Blackpool Council, welcomed the minister’s decision.
He said: “I am pleased for the team who have worked hard to towards getting, what had become a shambolic and serious situation, to be pointing in the right direction.
“The additional monitoring will help in keeping this focus on track and I for one will be extremely happy if the high number of looked after children in our care can look forward to a better future.”
The commissioner’s recommendations to the council included:
++ An “unrelenting” focus improving outcomes for children through strong partnership with police, education and heath services.
++ Developing a “strengths-based” social work practice model to engage with children and families
++ Ensuring systems in place when children and families first come to the service’s attention allow them to get an effective and appropriate response.
Recent changes include:
++ Setting up a helpline to enable staff in schools to discuss concerns directly with social workers
++ Getting social workers to spend more time with children and families to build up positive relationships
++n A new ‘Getting to Good’ board was set up, which replaced the Children’s Improvement Board and is made up of senior representatives of educational organisations, the police, council, NHS and Ofsted.
Lack of confidence
Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn said: “I think that going right back to when the council was created in 1998 (when we split from Lancashire County Council), we’ve lacked that same level of confidence.
“We had one director of children’s services for many years, but have then had three others in relatively quick succession, so change has been incremental and slow.
“Now, for the first time, we have a qualified social worker as our director, backed by other social work qualified deputies and heads of service. We’re seeing change happening more quickly, and in a more structured and considered way.
“The next phase is our recovery journey, which I am confident will see the council improve, incrementally, but as quickly as sustainably possible, until we get where we want to be which is an Ofsted grading of ‘good’.”