Ten ways to give children in Norfolk a better future

Launch of Get Norfolk Reading initiative.
Lionwood junior school children Emily Balls, Lola Cook, Ke

Launch of Get Norfolk Reading initiative. Lionwood junior school children Emily Balls, Lola Cook, Keran Forder, Rhyse Walton and Ruby Noble-Griffin. PHOTO: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Today we launch a manifesto to improve the prospects of children in Norfolk as part of our Fighting For Their Futures campaign.

Chloe Smith chairs social mobility roundtable in Norwich to respond to the 2016 Social Mobility Inde

Chloe Smith chairs social mobility roundtable in Norwich to respond to the 2016 Social Mobility Index which shows the poorest children in Norwich to have some of the worst life chances in the country. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

Over the last week, this newspaper has been investigating concerns and complaints about Norfolk County Council's children's services department. From tomorrow we will turn our attention to other areas where children could get a better deal.

Here are ten areas in particular where we hope progress can be made to give our youngsters a stronger start in life.

1) Fewer looked after children sent out of area

Norfolk needs to find more accommodation in the county for the children it takes into care.

It is not fair on the child to take them into care when the council does not have enough accommodation for them here and so has to send them away from friends and families.

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Around 16pc of children in the County Council's care (177 in 2016) are accommodated outside of Norfolk – with a bill of around £10m a year.

Some will need to be sent out of the county to specialist accommodation, but if the council can find homes in Norfolk, be that with foster carers or in its own care homes, that will be better for the children and better for the council's budget.

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

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2) Adequate funding for the children's service department

The County Council's children's services department is going around £14m over budget this year, largely because it has spent more money than expected on placing children in care in expensive residential homes.

Addressing the first point in our manifesto would go someway to helping, but the department can not be expected to always deliver better services with less money.

Its budget has fluctuated since 2010. Money needs to be targeted at the areas where the council can make best use of it – reducing number of children in care, where appropriate, and putting them in the most suitable care placements.

3) Come out of 'inadequate' Ofsted rating

This will be the clearest proof yet that the council's service for vulnerable children is getting better. The children's service department has been rated 'inadequate' in its last two Ofsted inspections – in 2013 and 2015. Ofsted rated three of five areas inspected as 'requires improvement' in 2015, a step up from 'inadequate' in 2013. But with two other areas deemed 'inadequate' the overall rating remained 'inadequate'. Inspectors spoke of 'widespread and serious failures'.

At the end of 2016 a monitoring visit by Ofsted found some improvements, but said it was not happening fast enough.

The council is due another Ofsted inspection in the next two years and we hope it will be enough to bring the service out of inadequate and eventually up to a good rating.

4) Find a permanent head for Norfolk children's services

It is hard for an organisation to improve when there is no permanent leadership.

The children's services department has had five different directors in four years. The latest director, Matt Dunkley, is also an interim and is only expected to remain to see Norfolk through to the next Ofsted inspection. We hope he can help the council find an able, permanent leader for the department.

5) Eradicate the number of children not getting a school place after being excluded to zero

Dozens of children who should be in school are currently not getting an education because so many have been excluded from mainstream schools. There is a long waiting list to get a place at schools where children are sent to after being excluded. That is unacceptable. Last year we reported that 41 children were not getting an education. This has now more than doubled to around 100. These are Norfolk's most difficult children and they need help. No child or young person should be left without an education for any length of time.

6) More provision for special educational needs and disability (SEND)

Norfolk also needs more school places for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Last year the council spent £15m sending 500 children with special educational needs to what are called 'out of area' placements. That includes independently run schools outside of Norfolk as well as inside the county. The number of children at special schools in Norfolk is rising. Some new funding has been announced by the government but it will not be enough.

7) Exam grade and Ofsted improvements

There has been some fantastic progress in Norfolk on this in the last three years. It is the fifth most improved county nationally for the proportion of pupils at good or outstanding secondary schools and the 18th most improved for primary schools. We want to see this rise continue as, despite improvements, too many children have no choice but to attend a school rated poorly by Ofsted. On the exam results there has also been some major progress, but the percentage of GCSE pupils getting Grade C or above in English and maths was still below the national average in Norfolk last year.

8) Get Norfolk Reading

We will be backing literacy campaigns to stress the importance of education to parents as well as children. The Get Norfolk Reading campaign by charity Beanstalk and the Transforming Education in Norfolk (the TEN Group) is a fantastic idea and deserves everyone's support. Figures show 37pc of children in Norfolk failed to reach the expected standard for reading last year, against the national average of 34pc.

9) More mental health services in schools

This is something this newspaper has long campaigned for with its Mental Health Watch campaign. We want to see more and more attention given to the mental health of youngsters. There has been a staggering increase in the numbers of under 18s referred to the region's mental health service.

This is getting more attention nationally and in this region and we believe more schools should have a dedicated, trained staff member to support pupils' mental health.

10) A fall in numbers of children facing deprivation

It is worrying that measures of deprivation in Norfolk got worse between 2010 and 2015 and some areas of the county are ranked as the least socially mobile places in the whole country. This means we are not doing enough to give opportunities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will look at what can be done and what is being done to address this.

•What do you think could be done to improve the lives of children in Norfolk? Tweet to @EDP24 or @eveningnews or email tom.bristow@archant.co.uk

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