A recent report from Ofsted, the government body overseeing Education, Children’s Services and Skills, has given Devon County Council an overall rating of “Inadequate”.

The council has a significant Conservative majority with the Tories holding 42 of the 60 available seats.

Three areas were assessed – two of which were rated as “Inadequate”, the third received a rating of “Requires improvement to be good”. This follows a report in 2015 which concluded the same, and was followed up with a visit in 2018 where improvements were noted but “…since then there has been a further decline.”

The damning report found that there were “…serious failures in the services provided to children and young people in Devon”.

Alarmingly, it goes on to say that “…senior leaders did not know about the extent of the failures to protect some of the most vulnerable children and young people from harm.” and that, in some cases, they were completely unaware that care leavers had been living on the streets in tents.

After Ofsted’s last very bad report on Devon County Council’s Children’s Services, we were assured that the right leadership, staffing, resources and action plan were being put in place to improve things. This is clearly not the case. Ben Bradshaw, MP (Labour)
Ben Bradshaw, MP (Labour)

Ben went on to say:

We need an urgent explanation from Devon’s political leadership about what had gone wrong and what they are doing to address it. Too many of our young people are being badly let down.

What has gone wrong?

The report identifies specific failures in the service provision from the council including:

  • A lack of clarity about when to turn concerns into legal action
  • A failure to systematically gather evidence of neglect
  • Managers, at all levels, lacking the drive and assertiveness for children to make progress
  • Politicians, senior leaders and practitioners have lacked grip, and the pace of improvement has been far too slow

The report did acknowledge that the shortcomings identified were not necessarily reflective of the experience of every service user.

However, the failure to maintain a consistent provision had resulted in children who were suffering “…chronic neglect and emotional abuse…” being left with their families for too long, it found.

What has gone right?

It is not uncommon for Social Workers, as the frontline provider of Children’s Services, to receive criticism when there are problems identified. This report, whilst identifying a number of grave concerns, did contain some positives.

“..Social workers know the children they work for very well. They use creative and sensitive ways of communicating that place children’s views at the centre of their work…” , it said.

It was also noted that “Social workers and other professionals in the community identify potential risks early.”, which must be seen as a positive.

The biggest difficulties for social workers are high caseloads, large geographical areas to cover, lack of local community options, insufficient good supervision, lack of appropriate training about key legal responsibilities and decision making skills…

said an experienced children’s services worker, with experience from the front line through to middle management level.

Recent years have seen

…[both] increasing numbers of children needing protection and falling financial resources to respond.

Clearly this is not a desirable combination, or one that is likely to have positive results.

What can be done?

With Local Authority budgets having been under sustained attack since the introduction of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, and successive Conservative governments since, Devon County Council will not be alone in facing significant challenges in relation to the provision of services.

Regrettably, there are very few services that are more time-critical than children’s services.

We cannot simply increase budgets to redress the chronic underfunding that the service has experienced over the last 10 years, although doing so is essential for protecting future service users.

Children that are negatively affected now risk suffering irreparable harm that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

A former Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) Service Manager, who retired within the last five years, said

It’s really important to remember that children pass through key stages of development quite quickly – attachments are hard to establish after 2.5 years so if removal is necessary you want to be clear about the evidence one way or the other early on.

Having worked with a number of different Local Authorities in the child services field, they went on to say that

Devon seemed to be slower in adopting slick processes than other authorities.

This, combined with a number of critical historic reports from Ofsted and the experience of Ben Bradshaw MP, points towards failings at higher-level and political management of the service, rather than a failure of individual staff at the front line.

The report identified a total of eight areas that were critical to the improvement of children’s services across the county. These were:

  • Services to care leavers, including suitability of accommodation and support, risk assessments and access to information.
  • The quality of social work practice, to assess, support and protect children who experience neglect.
  • The effectiveness of child protection measures and responses.
  • The consideration of child protection medicals.
  • Permanence planning for children.
  • The quality and timeliness of life-story work.
  • The assessment of children looked after placed with parents.
  • Strategic oversight and the grip on areas for improvement and oversight of senior leaders, including case audits and supervision.

We also offered Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, and Su Aves, DCC Councillor (Labour) who sits on the Council’s Children’s Scrutiny Committee, the opportunity to comment. At the time of publication, neither had provided one.

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