Back to Back inadequate Ofsted ratings take Buckinghamshire County Council’s (BCC) Children’s Services back to square one since the initital rating caused controversy and concern back in 2014.
Three portfolio holders later it seems like groundhog day for the beleagured department, which looks after some of the most vulnerable children in the county.
The latest inspection of the service found that efforts to improve it since a 2014 ‘inadequate’ rating have been inconsistent, slow and piecemeal.
And enough is enough - the Department for Education has now stepped in - appointing a commissioner to advise them on vital and ‘rapid’ next steps to help make improvements to the service.
The Ofsted report was a hard read for former Bucks County Councillor Robin Stuchbury. While serving the Labour politician was a vocal member of the authority’s scrutiny committee on children’s services.
As part of this committee he worked on its report investigating the council’s response to child sexual exploitation in the wake of the 2015 Old Bailey trial and subsequent jailing of six men who groomed young girls in the town.
During the trial it was revealed that both of the girls had accessed council services during the abuse - and fears for their safety had been escalated without follow-up. The council apologised at the time of the trial verdicts.
Mr Stuchbury said: “Cllr Robin Stuchbury: “That report reads no different to when I was serving on the Children’s Social Care and Learning Select Committee at Bucks County Council.
“It shows three years with no improvement; there needs to be a higher level of scrutiny going forward.”
“In the end it’s not the officers responsibilities, it’s that of the councillors. The officers can only work with what they’re given.”
In the wake of the 2014 Ofsted disaster, the Council approved £4.8 million on improving children’s services in Buckinghamshire. This effort was labelled ‘utterly inadequate’ by Ofsted in a damning in 2014.
Hopes were high in the period afterwards, Lin Hazell, who took over from previous portfolio holder Angela Macpherson said she was ‘very pleased’ with the progress they were making and wanted people to look forward rather than dwelling on the initial rating.
Speaking to this newspaper in 2016 she said: “It was two years ago, we need to move on, It’s like living in a time warp.”
Council leader Martin Tett warned at the time that budgets would have to be balanced in future saying the council “can’t keep taking cash from reserves to help children’s services.”
However It’s clear now that very little has changed.
Inspectors found that high turnover of social workers, high caseloads in some teams and poor case recording were key factors behind the service’s poor performance and was causing some children to be left at risk in unsuitable circumstances for too long.
The education watchdog also found that there are “serious inadequacies” in services for looked-after children, with a “small” number of children experiencing “further significant harm and neglect while being looked after”.
Following the inspection, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said the government would appoint a commissioner to work with Buckinghamshire and make a recommendation on what would best improve the service.
Management oversight of practice was weak and some child protection cases were being closed too soon, despite a lack of evidence of changes in circumstances, leading to children being re-referred, Ofsted warned.
Some social workers were also seen to have a “lack of professional curiosity” and while some children’s files are “succinct”, others are out of date or incomplete.
Councillor Warren Whyte, the cabinet member for children’s services at Buckinghamshire, who took over from Mrs Hazell last year in a cabinet reshuffle, said: “I am extremely disappointed and concerned with the outcome, and the council fully accepts the findings of the report.
“It is clear that some of our services are still not good enough yet and the pace of improvement in some key areas has been too slow. It is our collective responsibility to make sure we put this right. Above all else, my message to the children and families we support is that we remain resolute and determined to improve.
“We are very fortunate in Buckinghamshire to have a committed workforce who understand what we need to do to improve our services and one of our immediate priorities is to guide and support then to improve the services that we offer.”
A Department for Education spokesperson: “We are appointing a commissioner to inform our decision about next steps on how best to secure rapid and sustainable improvement so that children and families in Buckinghamshire have access to high quality services. The Commissioner will make a recommendation as to next steps which will be considered by the department.”
Commissioners are appointed by the government after evidence of persistent failure to deliver good services. In the past their recommendations have been to keep services in house, remove the service from council control and place it into an independent children’s trust, or enlist the support of another council as an improvement partner.
Arrangements to meet the needs of unaccompanied asylum seekers when they first arrive were also found to be insufficient to ensure that their needs are met.
As of October 31 last year, 2,447 children had been identified through assessment as being formally in need of a specialist children’s service – down from 3,363 at March 31, 2017.
Inspectors found improvements have been successfully achieved in some service areas, mostly in reaction to the shortfalls identified during monitoring visits.
Ofsted also praised some elements of the service - saying it now has a ‘strong senior leadership team who work effectively with partner agencies to increase the awareness of risks to vulnerable children.’