The numbers of children without an allocated social worker at Northamptonshire County Council has drastically fallen within the last three months.
In a rare piece of good news regarding its children’s services, the number of unallocated cases has reduced from 383 in the middle of October to 81, it was reported to councillors today. It is also significantly down on the high figures from last January, where the number stood at 551.
The number of unallocated cases was a key finding during November’s critical Ofsted inspection of the council’s children’s service. The watchdog told council chief executive Theresa Grant that the ‘lack of oversight and poor management’ was leaving children at potential risk of harm. Departing staff had also commented on the ‘unmanageably high’ caseloads in exit interviews.
The Ofsted report led to the Government appointing Malcolm Newsam as its third commissioner at the council, purely to oversee children’s services.
And Mr Newsam, speaking in public to councillors for the first time this morning at the latest overview and scrutiny committee meeting at County Hall, said that the recent efforts were the start of ‘months’ of work to change the culture at the council.
He said: “The secret to success on any improvement journey is being absolutely focused on your priorities.
“We think we are all good at setting priorities, but actually we are not. My experience is that when everything is broken around you, everyone wants to get it fixed all at once, and you have staff running around everywhere because you think that’s how you have to do it.
“But the number one priority is making sure that we don’t have any unallocated cases, and that the caseworkers have reasonable workloads. It’s dead simple, but it all hinges on how well we can attract and retain staff.”
Also speaking to councillors was Sharon Muldoon, the acting director of children’s services. Mrs Muldoon was praised by the committee for the work she has done in her interim stint, and former children’s services cabinet member Councillor Victoria Perry wants to see her work protected.
She told the meeting: “Back in 2016 when Ofsted came in and said we were going in the right direction it was Sharon who was in interim charge then. But a new director came in and changed things, and I have been assured that it won’t happen again this time.”
The children’s services director position will be filled permanently by Sally Hodges on February 18, the committee was told.
Speaking about some of the changes in approach in recent weeks, Mrs Muldoon told councillors: “I’ve made it my mission to go and visit staff because one of the criticisms of the Ofsted report was a lack of visibility of senior leadership.
“Whilst I’m proud of what we have delivered in the last 12 weeks we still have a lot to do. I don’t want you to walk away thinking everything has been solved, but there are foundations there. There’s still improvement challenges that we need over the next 12 months to get where we want to be.
“There are obviously still 81 unallocated cases as well, although 20-30 of these allocations are usually in transition. And we need to get more qualified social workers into our safeguarding team.
“But it’s not just about unallocated cases. It’s about caseload too, and that has to be manageable. We could allocate all the cases, but it has to be manageable.”
New cabinet member for children’s services Councillor Fiona Baker added: “I’m accompanying Sharon on all these visits to show that we are all behind them.”
Chair of the overview and scrutiny committee, Councillor Mick Scrimshaw, commented: “Obviously this had been a big topic of discussion, and while we are glad to see improvements I think we would all agree that there’s still more to do. I suspect we will want more detail going forward and we will be asking officers tough questions throughout the year.”