By Joe Locker, Local Democracy Reporter
Nottingham City Council says there are “significant risks” in sustaining progress towards improving its failing children’s services due to financial and staffing problems.
Education watchdog Ofsted rated the Labour-run authority’s services as ‘inadequate’ in 2022, and an improvement and transformation plan was put in place to ensure vital changes are made.
Ofsted has so far conducted two more monitoring visits, the first earlier this year, and the latest at the end of July.
Inspectors noted there were “early signs of tangible improvements” in field work practice and the environment in which staff work, however inconsistencies in care and staff shortages continue to prove a problem.
The findings from the latest monitoring visit are expected to be discussed at two meetings next week, the Children’s Partnership Board meeting on September 26 and the Children and Young People Scrutiny Committee on September 28.
In documents published ahead of the meetings, the council says: “These findings provide an important benchmark in our journey of improvement and taken together with the first monitoring visit demonstrate that improvements in our response to children in need of help and protection have been made.
“Nevertheless, it is important to note that there are some significant risks to sustaining the progress made and continuing to make the necessary improvements.
“As noted within the findings, the leadership team acknowledge that improvements need to be sustainable, which is set against a backdrop of workforce instability and reliance upon agency staffing – a nationwide challenge for children’s services.
“Maintaining staffing levels remains challenging, not just locally but nationally, where the recruitment and retention of experienced social workers is difficult, and services rely heavily upon agency staffing.”
Councillors and service leaders are also expected to discuss the challenges of delivering improvements amid significant budget pressures.
Finance update documents, given to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, show there was an overspend in the council’s children’s services by £4.192m in 2022/23, which contributed to an overall overspend of £9.8m.
This overspend has been covered through the use of reserves.
Over the next financial year of 2023/24 the pressures in children’s services are expected to rise to £6.928m, which will contribute to a £26m budget hole which the council is now working to fill.
It is anticipating the demand and service pressures for its children’s services, over a four-year period from 2024/25 to 2027/28, are expected to rise further to more than £17.567m.
Documents say the demand is due to a “combination of demographic increase, increase capacity to deliver agreed Ofsted improvements and staffing resource”.
“The service is also making practice improvements at the same time as its wider children’s services transformation programme, which presents a risk to maintaining focus on the ‘at pace’ improvements that need to be made,” documents add.
“Whilst both work programmes are working closely and in tandem, the capacity, ability and pace of change required means making and sustaining changes as well as sustaining staff energy and morale is challenging, especially when a stable workforce is challenging to achieve.
“It is also important to acknowledge that the children’s service’s improvement and transformation programmes also sit within the significant wider council change programme and the budgetary pressures that the authority faces.”