Norfolk’s children’s services: You can’t fix a problem if you don’t admit it exists

Our campaign is looking at education standards across Norfolk. Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Our campaign is looking at education standards across Norfolk. Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Editor David Powles looks back on the first few days of our Fighting for Their Futures campaign.

So who should you believe? Our investigation, backed by MPs and recent evidence from Ofsted inspectors, which found much hard work still needs to be done to drastically improve the quality of services children in Norfolk receive from the public sector?

Or Norfolk County Council, which - in emails sent to its staff - accuses us of a 'torrent of unfair and negative reporting' which paints a 'misleading picture of the dedicated work' staff in children's services do every day?

The right answer is probably a bit of both.

Believe me, we do not take the decision to publish hard-hitting and in-depth investigations like this lightly.

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But an Ofsted follow up visit just three months ago said 'children and young people are still not consistently receiving good enough services' and a Norfolk MP says he will present the new boss of the department with a dossier of concerns.

Meanwhile, we were also concerned that such a vital department, which clearly needs stability, is now on its fifth head in recent years. We sincerely hope Matt Dunkley, the newly appointed director, can give Norfolk children's services the direction it needs to improve, and quickly.

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It's been made clear the council is in the last chance saloon and the next OFSTED inspection is make or break.

Once we decided to delve into the subject, our reporters dedicated week after week to speaking to people in the know, those affected and those with detailed knowledge of the issues.

Many hours more were then spent carrying out the proper checks and balances. I remain confident we've picked up on an issue that is real, needs to be reported on and still needs to be acted upon. It may make uncomfortable reading but this is something which is hugely in the public interest.

And yet, I do realise, as county hall officials have pointed out, there is a danger our articles could create a 'misleading picture of the dedicated work' staff in children's services do every day.

But I want to make it clear - and we've tried to do this throughout the last few days - that none of the criticisms or issues raised have been laid at the door at those people out in the community who do their very best for our county's children in what are incredibly challenging conditions.

However, it would be simply wrong to ignore the problems at hand because it might upset dedicated staff. And we hope that by raising concerns many staff themselves have, their working lives can be improved and ultimately, and crucially, so too will the care youngsters receive.

What I have found hard to understand in these last few days is why the response to our investigation from those charged with leading the way at Norfolk County Council has been to come out on the attack and try to claim we are merely retelling an old story. I assure you we are not.

We gave those in charge at county hall several weeks to properly respond to our findings. They chose not to.

In fact, in the case of the problems around accommodation provided for 16 to 18-year-olds, the response was more concerning than that. We were assured the failings weren't current and all was rosy in the garden, only for a week later new pictures to emerge showing that it was very much a current problem.

Lo and behold council bosses have now launched their own investigation - but why did it take two articles for that to happen? How long would the problems have continued if we hadn't highlighted the situation in the first place?

We've made it clear time and time again that we are very happy to report on positive developments within children's services. That hasn't and won't change.

I remember last year going to see the boss of an influential organisation in this county and after a while the talk turned to Norfolk's children in need.

He said he felt the biggest issue Norfolk has is that it too often turns its back on some problems and tries to act like they don't exist. Just like the famous monkeys - a case of hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

We desperately hope that isn't what is happening in this instance.

Over the next few weeks our investigation will undoubtedly highlight some uncomfortable truths that Norfolk has to face in terms of how some of our less fortunate children are growing up.

None of us enjoy doing that, we all love this county and are proud to call it home. But how can you fix a problem if you don't admit it exists?

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