Private company could be used to assess whether Norfolk children need social care
- Credit: Archant
A private company could be brought in by Norfolk County Council's under fire children's services department to carry out assessments of young people who might need social care.
Bosses at the department, which received stinging criticism from Ofsted last year, believe the controversial move would free up its own social workers to concentrate on providing vital care and support to Norfolk children and families.
Union bosses said social workers were still struggling with caseloads and, although they would be opposed to privatisation, they acknowledged a short term fix was needed.
In a six-month period last year, Ofsted branded the council's arrangements for protecting children and its services for looked-after children as 'inadequate', and said the council's support for school improvement was 'ineffective'.
That led to the departure of children's services director Lisa Christensen, following pressure from MPs, and the appointment of interim director Sheila Lock.
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Ms Lock, who was initially appointed on a six-month contract, has extended her stay until spring next year.
The department has recently submitted its children's services improvement plan to the Department for Education, to show the action taken since those highly critical reports.
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The plan sets a target for protection of children to be rated 'good' by Ofsted by March in 2016.
Ms Lock said it was based on three priorities - giving children and young people a voice, reorganising the children's services workforce and working more closely with the clinical commissioning groups to put together better care packages for youngsters.
She said: 'If we can get the workforce in the right place then those three will be the building blocks which will set Norfolk on the road to being a good authority.
'One of the things we are exploring is whether we can work with a private provider around some of the task and finish processes, such as assessments.
'That would free up our capacity to do the day to day social work. The quality of those assessments would be assured because if they weren't right, then we wouldn't pay them.'
Jonathan Dunning, spokesman for Unison said: 'Getting caseloads down is a priority and our members are telling us this is still a problem.
'We believe it makes sense to offer paid overtime to all staff to help address this and would want this to be pursued before there was any use of private providers, who are likely to be more expensive than our own staff and maybe less in tune with what is really required in Norfolk.
'Ultimately given the situation we are in, anything that reduces case loads and helps our members provide a better service to the children and families of Norfolk has to be supported.'
In August, the council's cabinet committed to £2.7m of immediate one-off investment to employ agency social workers to begin work to reduce caseloads.
Some £2.3m of revenue funding was also agreed to recruit permanent social workers – to pick up the work of the agency staff.
In October, the council launched a campaign to recruit at least 50 more social workers.
Ms Lock acknowledged that recruitment had been difficult.
She said: 'We still have about 38 agency staff in place. We realised just before Christmas that we are never going to be in a position, like in Essex, where they can get the London market.
'What we saw coming through was newly qualified staff and those with less experience. We sat and had conversations and said we cannot run like this indefinitely.'
That has led to two 'very experienced' managers being recruited to head up two teams of 45 newly qualified social workers, supported through their first year in employment through the new Norfolk Institute of Professional Excellence created in partnership with the University of East Anglia.
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