Andrew Christie is just five weeks into the role of being the government’s eyes and ears in Northamptonshire after taking up the job following the resignation of former children’s commissioner Malcolm Newsam.One of the country’s most experienced social workers – he has been in the profession for more than 40 years and led children’s social services in London – he says his most critical role is making sure the new trust being created is set up in a way it can succeed.
He said: “The trust is there because the council has not done what it should have done in the past. But this trust will be an organisation that is directly accountable to the county council and the two new unitary councils. It will be a public service and the trust is not a privatisation of children’s services.
“It will be held to account by the council in a variety of ways. The distinction will be the way it operates on a day to day basis and it has a degree of autonomy on that.
“It will have certain freedoms and flexibilities and it will have a complete focus on children’s services.
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“I think people should look upon the trust with hope.
“My first and most critical job is to get the trust right, with the correct chair and chief executive in place. Once we have a robust trust in place I would expect my role to diminish.”
However there are lots of other issues for the children’s commissioner to help sort out before his role lessens. He does not have executive powers – his brief he says is to give advice and guidance – but all of his experience will be needed to transform the department, which has a shortage of permanent social work staff and in previous months has left more than 200 children in need without an allocated social worker.
He says he was shocked when he arrived to realise the situation.
He said: “It has been a huge issue and one of the issues that has been put front and centre when myself and my assistant Clare Chamberlain started here. It is one of the first things that we have worked with the council to address. I’m really pleased that at the last report we saw there were almost no unallocated cases at all.”
He says this has been done by a more systematic approach and by the council and the Department for Education bringing in more experienced staff. The department also has a new director of service Cathi Hadley, who took on the role after Sally Hodges quit.The role of recruiting new permanent professionals will be a more difficult one – and a problem the council has not been able to solve over the past year, despite a number of initiatives.
He said: “It is not easy. It is a problem I have experienced several times before and this is not unique to Northamptonshire. It is a common feature of inadequate children’s services and is often to do with a loss of confidence and a feeling by social workers that it is going to be too difficult to do the job well in that setting. So they will go to other places.
“Part of the solution is building confidence in the service.”
He paid tribute to the Northamptonshire social workers and says he has come across many good staff who have soldiered on through the difficult past two years. He was also complimentary about the foster carers on the council’s books and said more are needed to help turn the service around.
The chaos that his predecessor described in the ‘front door’ of the service – where child protection referrals first come to – he says is now under better control but there is still more to do. He expects this part of the service to be an area of inspection for Ofsted when they make their visit. They will then return on a regular basis to check the necessary progress is being made.
He said: “I think we are not yet confident that children in Northamptonshire are well enough protected. So critically we will be subject to a routine programme of monitoring by Ofsted and we anticipate the first visit will likely be at the start of next year and that will happen every couple of months. The reports will be published and that will give a good guide to what progress is being made.”
The new trust is due to be up and running by summer next year.