The Tory council that failed its children – The Guardian

When Ofsted rated Gloucestershire’s children’s services as “inadequate” in June, the report was phrased in such blistering terms that councillors in the Conservative-led local authority reacted with shock, bewilderment, and fury.

“I feel conned,” said Liberal Democrat councillor Colin Hay at an extraordinary meeting convened to discuss the crisis. “I’ve listened to four years of warm words and being told it was OK. But frankly it wasn’t OK.” Joe Harris, another Lib Dem councillor and member of the children and families scrutiny committee, said at the meeting that the result was “unforgivable” and that he felt “lied to” by the children’s services senior team.

Children’s services were rated inadequate six years ago, but far from services improving, Ofsted said the quality had “deteriorated significantly” and that there were “serious and widespread failures for children in need of help and protection”. Damningly, the inspectors uncovered serious concerns about the integrity of senior management, with some staff left feeling “vulnerable, unsupported and fearful of challenging or exposing poor practice”. With this breakdown between social workers and senior staff and an unprecedented number of whistleblowing concerns, “the management oversight of children’s services is failing to protect children and families,” the report concluded. If that were not enough, inspectors also found that some children were exposed to unassessed risk for far too long, significant delays in initiating care proceedings and delays in deciding to take children into care, as well as inconsistent thresholds for accessing help and support.

Gloucestershire is by no means the only council to be strongly criticised by Ofsted. There are 33 children’s services departments rated “inadequate” across England. Two-thirds are councils serving predominantly poor, urban areas. Gloucestershire has pockets of deprivation but it does not have to contend with the effects of widespread poverty or high unemployment levels. So why did this children’s service fail so comprehensively, and are there lessons other councils can learn from its mistakes?

There were certainly plenty of signs that children’s services was struggling. Last year, three serious case reviews were published within six months. One for a three-year-old boy who almost died from his injuries alarmingly concluded that Gloucestershire’s children’s services had “a complete lack of a child focus”. Another, investigating the death of “Lucy”, a pregnant teenager well known to children’s services and police who was murdered by her boyfriend, concluded that “a healthy culture of challenge” between professionals was “not embedded in Gloucestershire – this may leave children vulnerable.” A third involved the death of nine-month-old “Ben” which flagged up “a lack of professional curiosity about the parents’ relationship and how they were coping as a couple with the care of a premature baby”. Two more serious case reviews have not yet been published; one into another infant death, the second a near child fatality.

A freedom of information request by the Guardian revealed that in January, Gloucestershire had missed the statutory six-month deadline for a permanent decision to be made on the futures of children in its care in 44% of cases, preventing children from building trusting relationships with long-term foster families or seriously compromising their chances of being adopted. It was the worst performance by a very long stretch out of the neighbouring authorities it benchmarks itself against.

The most senior family judge in the region, Stephen Wildblood QC, also set alarm bells ringing when he issued a series of withering judgments over two years about Gloucestershire’s children’s services. The judgments detailed the damaging effects of delays being experienced by some children in the council’s care, as well as poor quality, legally contemptuous and even unlawful social work practice that was discovered when casework and evidence was scrutinised in court.

Senior officials failed to respond to these failings. Conservative council leader Mark Hawthorne says councillors did challenge officers when the judgments came out but all the response amounted to was “that in their professional opinion, in some instances they felt the judgments were unfair”. With hindsight, Hawthorne says, “I think that did reflect a slightly bunkered mentality by the management to those criticisms.”

Harris, who says he still feels shaken by Ofsted’s findings, believes that senior officers simply did not like or welcome challenge. “I can remember quite clearly saying things in meetings and officers shaking their heads. Sort of ‘oh God, why are you nagging?’” he recalls.

Alison Williams, right, new interim director of children’s services at Gloucestershire, and Sarah Holtom, the council’s principal social worker



Alison Williams, right, new interim director of children’s services at Gloucestershire, and Sarah Holtom, the council’s principal social worker Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

“Insular” is how the children’s services department is described by the new interim director of children’s social care, Alison Williams. Four months in, Williams believes that the previous senior management team wrongly interpreted poor frontline practice as being caused by bigger caseloads (one frontline social worker reports having relatively recently carried a caseload of 35, “minimum”).

Instead, she says, a very high proportion of inexperienced frontline child protection social workers – a different Guardian FOI request identified that 80 out of 162 social workers had been qualified 18 months or less in December2016 –meant weaknesses were likely to occur without stringent supervision and tight quality assurance of their casework. Turnover was also high: nearly a third of frontline agency and staff social workers had left in the 12 months to December 2016 and two-thirds of an inexperienced cohort found themselves promoted to team manager level within three years of starting. “There was a perfect storm of a 20% increase in demand and an approach of ‘let’s fix that by bringing in newly qualified social workers’, when there wasn’t the capacity in the service to nurture our young talent,” says Williams.

Families say when they voiced concerns about those weaknesses, they were met with a complacent and high-handed approach by a department that struggled to acknowledge criticism. “Our experience of the directorate over the last 12 years is that it is incompetent, arrogant and obfuscatory. It gives me no pleasure to be proved correct by Ofsted, but it does give me some small comfort that children might be better protected in future,” one family member told me.

Nor, it seems, did senior management always act on their employees’ stated concerns. Ofsted inspectors said they had received “an unprecedented number” of whistleblowing reports. “People found it very difficult to speak up. Psychologically they didn’t feel safe enough to say things,” says Sarah Holtom, one of Gloucestershire’s principal social workers, now part of the team working to rebuild the service. Even when employees did raise issues, she says, “we took them to whoever we needed to, and for whatever reason, things didn’t happen from there.”

After such a damning Ofsted report, some are surprised that the government hasn’t come down harder on the council. Unlike at Croydon last month, and previously in Slough and Doncaster (all Labour councils), the Department for Education did not decide to dismantle Gloucestershire’s children’s services and impose new management. Instead a DfE adviser was appointed to guide the Tory council’s “improvement plan”. Meanwhile, children’s services director Linda Uren, has retired, operations director Kathy O’Mahony has left and deputy director Vicky Butler has been demoted.

An improvement plan has just been formally adopted by the council: its aims include early and accurate diagnosis of problems, and rigorously quality assuring and supporting basic social work practice. An important focus is transforming the culture to encourage transparency and plain speaking. “You shouldn’t have to rely on Ofsted to turn up for whistleblowers to feel able to come forward,” says council leader Mark Hawthorne. The council has just appointed the charity Public Concern at Work to run its whistleblowing function, so employees will hopefully now feel safer to speak out.

Essex county council is Gloucestershire’s “improvement partner” and the plan is being overseen by the DfE. The next monitoring visit takes place in January: all aspects of it must have been achieved by November 2018, and it’s hard to imagine that the council won’t lose control of its children’s services if it’s found to have fallen short.

Gloucestershire’s chief executive, Pete Bungard, has acknowledged that senior leaders will need to “stop believing some of the narrative” proffered by departmental managers, and said he would no longer accept reports that simply benchmarked Gloucestershire’s performance against other local authorities.

But some question why neither Hawthorne nor Bungard have left – both were also in charge when the 2011 inadequate rating was published.

Keeping children safe is “not a situation where you get three strikes and you’re out,” says Pete Jeffries, safeguarding lead councillor at nearby Cheltenham borough council. “This is people’s lives who haven’t been supported to the extent that they are almost written off now, these young people. It beggars belief that Bungard didn’t know what was going on: if he didn’t know, he was incompetent.”

In response, a Gloucestershire county council spokesman says: “We knew our children’s service was under a lot of pressure, which is why the council put extra investment into the service and continues to do so. Although we knew demand had increased and that we needed more social workers, Ofsted highlighted further issues. We responded immediately, including completely replacing the children’s leadership team, bringing in some of the country’s top experts in this field, as well as addressing drift and reviewing cases.” He adds: “We are already seeing positive change, although there is much more work to do.”

Caseloads are down to below 20 per full-time social worker, but one frontline social worker who didn’t wish to be identified, gives it two to three years before children’s services is up to scratch. “We have to get our confidence and our reputation back, in court as well, because we’ve been admonished,” he says. “The difficulty is that the council can’t recruit agency social workers because of the reputation. We’ve still got a lot of students and inexperienced [social workers], but they are our lifeblood and our future, and if we’re burning them out, and not supervising them properly … there is a level of instability.”

Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers , says many authorities have made great improvements after a bad Ofsted by investing in their staff, but it is not always the case. “We often hear from social workers that when their authority is found inadequate, managers react with heavy-handed directives and even bullying. This is unacceptable and counterproductive. Social workers need the time, tools and support for great practice,” she says.

Despite the scale of the task ahead, Williams and Holtom are confident they can turn things around. They have initiated a system of regular, detailed scrutiny of children’s case files to ensure robust quality assurance of social workers’ practice. There is an effort to build up a better sense of team identity and support in a geographically spread-out local authority. And nobody is in any doubt that trust needs to be rebuilt internally – and most importantly between the council and vulnerable children and their families.“We need to make sure that as much as we’re seeking to demonstrate the good things we’re doing, we need also to be transparent about the things that aren’t going well,” says Williams

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