By Joe Locker, Local Democracy Reporter
An improvement adviser appointed by the Department for Education says there remains “a lot to do” to fix Nottingham City Council’s failing children’s services.
Ofsted rated the Labour-run authority’s services as ‘inadequate’ in 2022, and said children had been left at risk of harm because of the shortcomings.
An inspection identified eight areas for improvement, including effectiveness and timeliness of support for children, social worker capacity and consistency, as well as an oversight of children missing from education and those who are educated at home.
An action plan is now in place and progress is being monitored by an improvement board.
Should the council fail to make necessary changes, an external commissioner could appointed.
As part of the work to rapidly improve the services, consultants expected to cost the council roughly £6.5m have been brought in for two years, alongside specialist resourcing which comes at an additional cost of £2.4m.
Newton Europe, a specialist in operational improvement based in Oxfordshire, will help deliver an improvement programme alongside a Government-appointed improvement adviser.
Lou Williams, a former director of children’s services in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, was appointed as the improvement adviser by the Department for Education to provide independent oversight into the council’s work.
Mr Williams helped bring Peterborough’s children’s services up from inadequate in 2015 to “safely good” by 2018.
He was present during a scrutiny committee meeting at Loxley House on January 26, where he informed councillors of the priorities and progress.
“There is still a lot to do,” Mr Williams said.
“It takes some time to fix something, some of the challenges that are here, but I think the building blocks are absolutely here.”
He says initial efforts have focused on improvements to front of house services, such as initial points of call for those in need of support.
A “mystery shopper” tactic has been deployed, in the form of a person posing as someone attempting to get a referral or support from children’s services, to identify how staff are performing.
There are also a high number of children on child protection plans compared to other local authorities with a similar population and levels of deprivation.
Work will take place to investigate whether the support they are receiving while on plans is effective enough.
Better partnership working with schools, which the committee was informed are becoming increasingly “stretched”, is also a priority.
This is largely down to difficulties in referring pupils who may be at risk, with a lack of understanding surrounding gaining consent from parents or guardians before making a referral.
To address this 200 people have, to date, signed up to training events.
“The biggest area of ongoing challenge is likely to be around actually staffing the workforce and so on,” Mr Williams said
Catherine Underwood, the corporate director for adult and children’s services, added: “We are using a significant number of agency staff at the moment.
“In terms of moving the service forward, we need all of our staff to come on the journey with us.”
Eight new social workers roles have been created alongside a new managerial post, while six social worker apprentices started in January as part of a new scheme.
“For the next three years they will be supported through the apprenticeship programme to complete their social work degree, and three years time they will be qualified social workers,” said Ailsa Barr, the director of children’s integrated services at the council.
“We are currently working as a service to identify how we will fund a similar number next year, and the year after, and so the intention would be we, each year, have a cohort of people join us as apprentices and every year we will have people who qualify with us.
“We also have connections with the local universities and regularly offer placements.”
Despite the workforce challenges Mr Williams argued there were “positives”, with no mass staff exodus in children’s services after the inadequate judgement landed.
He said this was due to a “committed” workforce.
Cllr Sam Gardiner (Lab) also questioned the timescales of the improvement journey.
It is understood the improvement board could remain in place for up to three years.
The council’s improvement plan was recently sent to Ofsted, which confirmed it was “content with it”, Ms Underwood says.