What progress are schools and children’s social services in Norfolk making?
- Credit: Archant
Last summer was a watershed for Norfolk County Council's children's services department. Its embattled director Lisa Christensen stood down after Ofsted raised serious concerns about education and the safeguarding of vulnerable children, and Sheila Lock was appointed interim director to turn things around.
Over the last six months the bad news has kept coming, although much of it has been a legacy of the past.
Last month's GCSE league tables, based on 2013 results, saw Norfolk plunge 20 places down the English league table. Ofsted said the service for looked-after children was inadequate. It emerged that nearly 1,000 potentially vulnerable children went unassessed. The government issued a statutory direction.
So how is the council doing now, against its own targets? In education, the picture is mixed.
It aims for 77pc of pupils leaving primary school to reach level four in reading, writing and maths in 2014; the current projection is 76pc.
It aims for 61pc of 16-year-olds to have at least five GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths, in 2014; the current projection is 55pc.
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The council aimed to have 67pc of primary schools, and 62pc of secondary schools, judged 'good' or better by Ofsted by December 2013; the figures were 66pc and 64pc respectively.
In social services, the number of children in need whose cases have not been allocated fell from 993 in October, to 290 in December.
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Social-worker recruitment has been a key way of reducing the backlog, and the caseload on individual social workers. A campaign to recruit more permanent social workers has resulted in 70 applications, and Ms Lock said the council was now 'taking stock'.
Unison insisted that workloads were still too high, and Ms Lock said a plan to tackle this should become clear in the next few weeks.
Another key concern has been poor recording of cases, and Ms Lock said the CareFirst system used to manage them was overhauled last month.
Weekly performance data is now being reported to check whether all assessment and reporting processes are being followed, and to quickly spot problems in teams of social workers, or individuals.
The council has highlighted the rise in the number of looked-after children as a corporate risk, because of its high cost.
The authority has 1,144 children in its care – 500 more than would be expected based on similar councils – and a three-pronged strategy is focusing on three different age groups: over-17s, over-13s on the verge of going into care, and under-twos.
Ms Lock said the number of looked-after children had now stabilised.
She said putting the child at the centre of what the council did
was at the heart of her 'robust' approach.
Much of this centred on work on the ground in local communities, and getting all the different agencies to work together properly, and sharing information, financial planning and staff training.
A scheme to put a dedicated social worker in six school clusters started this term.
Although she does not envisage services formally merging, Ms Lock asked: 'If you have got services being delivered in a community, why do you need six different sets of managers?'
She added: 'We are doing some stuff with the district councils to translate some of the words we have had on the page for a long time into tangible action.
'That does mean that we would try to provide some of our provision and help in the community, but with the voluntary sector working along side us, rather than us delivering our services from Norwich or King's Lynn bases.
'If you do that, you are not just making services more accessible to people, but you can start to do some really interesting things about communities taking responsibility themselves, rather than creating dependency.'
The next six months are expected to see plenty of tests of whether services are improving, including Ofsted inspections of safeguarding and looked after children, and support for school improvement, and a Department for Education review of children's services' capacity to improve.
Both North Norfolk MP and health minister Norman Lamb, and Louise Casey, the government's director of troubled families, have described Ms Lock as a 'breath of fresh air'.
But those hoping she will stay at the council permanently are in for a disappointment – she is not here for the long term.
She said: 'It's not what I do. I did come here with a commitment to help Norfolk out of the situation it's in and I gave a commitment not to go until there's clear a plan for me to go. Sustainability is the issue. We are working on that at the moment.'
She added: 'I'm not just going to up sticks, and there's a job to be done and I will stay as long as I'm useful to that, really. I want to leave Norfolk a better place.'
Have children's services improved over the past six months? Email firstname.lastname@example.org