New head of Norfolk children’s services promises dramatic improvement as government issues six-month deadline

Sheila Lock, who has been appointed as the interim director of children's services at Norfolk County Council.

Sheila Lock, who has been appointed as the interim director of children's services at Norfolk County Council. - Credit: Supplied

With the government telling Norfolk children's services to improve, education correspondent Martin George meets the new face who has pledged to make the difference.

2013 is proving to be an annus horribilis for Norfolk County Council's children's services department, with its two most important flanks – education and protecting vulnerable children – under sustained attack.

Up to now, Ofsted has been leading the charge. A blitz of school inspections in March revealed its serious concerns about education standards, and was followed by the first inspection of its kind examining how the council supports school improvement.

In February, Ofsted said the council's child protection arrangements were 'inadequate' across the board, and yesterday it passed the same damning verdict on its services for children in care.

The council has put in place plans to improve both education and safeguarding, which Ofsted has acknowledged, and earlier this month announced an extra £16.5m for more social workers, school improvement advisers and children with special educational needs.

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But if it thought this would ensure the second half of the year was better, it will have been disappointed to see the government join the battle with stronger-than-expected orders improve over the next six months.

Minister Edward Timpson had been due to issue an improvement notice – a lower level of intervention – following the February judgement, but changed his mind in the light of the two subsequent inspection reports.

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He said the council will have to continue the improvement plan it has put in place, including setting up an improvement board with an independent chair.

Importantly, the government will also appoint a partner to review how children's services functions, and 'develop options for the delivery of sustainable improvements to the service'.

Last month the Department for Education (DfE) signalled its intention to get tough on failing councils when it stripped Doncaster Council of its child protection responsibilities following a report into problems dating back to 2005.

Asked what would happen if Norfolk Council did not improve, a DfE spokesman said: 'The nature and depth of weaknesses vary from council to council and solutions will too. We take decisions on a case by case basis.'

Yesterday's Ofsted report was published on Sheila Lock's sixth day as the council's interim director of children's services, and she immediately pledged to 'dramatically improve' performance.

She said: 'What the secretary of state is saying is that he will use all his powers if we don't make the improvement to ensure that children's services in Norfolk are of the right standard.

'We retain responsibility for dealing will all of children's services, but if we are not administering the right kind of improvement he could say the authority is not in a position to deliver all these services.'

She said the cabinet's decision to pump an extra £16.5m into her department was 'absolutely fantastic', but she would not be drawn on whether she thought more resources would be needed, and instead pledged to use existing budgets wisely.

Ms Lock began her career in children's service as a specialist social worker at Tameside in 1989, and has since worked in Calderdale, Sheffield and Barnsley, and was most recently chief executive of Leicester City Council and interim director of children's services at Cardiff Council.

She said she would use her experience working on children's issues nationally and internationally in Norfolk.

She said she would focus on four themes to deliver 'significant improvements': getting the basics right, tackling performance in the department, building successful partnerships with other agencies and organisations, and delivering effective leadership and management across services.

More specific actions included increasing capacity for early support for families, so staff have manageable workloads and can support families effectively, and getting to know schools better, so they can meet the needs of their local communities better.

She emphasised that the cabinet had been working on its improvement plan, and approved the extra investment, before the minister's letter, and said the political will to improve the department was there.

She said: 'We have to get everyone pointing in the same direction, and everyone playing the same tune. In Norfolk at the moment I feel like we are an orchestra where we have some great music coming from the violins and some discordant music from the percussion and a completely different tune from the brass. My job is to be the conductor making sure that everyone plays the same tune.

'It's about how do we get everybody working on the same set of objectives. What I have learned is that I can't do this on my tod. I have to do this working absolutely collaboratively with the politicians and have to get an effective team working here in Norfolk, and I have to get effective partnerships established.'

Asked whether children's services could be improved, she replied, without hesitation, 'absolutely'.

'We are not going to do it next week, but I'm absolutely confident we can make the improvements necessary here to ensure that every child gets the opportunity to realise their full potential.

'The position I would like to be in in six months is to demonstrate that we are well on the road to delivering what the minister expects.

'Part of the difficulty in saying we will crack it in six months is that some of the data will take more than six months to produce.

'I certainly want to be in a position where the conversation with the minister is a fundamentally different conversation, where we are celebrating successes and reaching some of the milestones on the journey.'

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