This report provides the Overview and Scrutiny Committee with a progress update on improvement activity since the Ofsted Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Services.
The Director of People – Children and Adult Services introduced the report which updated the Committee on progress of improvement activity since Medway’s Ofsted Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Services. He highlighted the additional resource that had been provided to the directorate, the realignment of the service, the work of the Improvement Board, the work with partners in practice and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. He explained that the Council was beginning to move into the second phase of the improvement journey where progress needed to be firmer, go further and go faster, adding the improvement plan would be refreshed accordingly.
The Children’s Commissioner then addressed the Committee, explaining that she had submitted an update report to the Minister, to provide some independent external assurance in light of the cancellation of the Ofsted monitoring visits due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Commissioner added that she would submit her formal 6 month review report to the minister in July. She expressed her view that the Council had responded well to the challenges faced by Covid-19 and reflected on strengths that had been established as a result, such as the improved working relationship with schools. She added that there had been clear improvements in the service and in the priority given to it across the Council. As progress continued, she would be seeking, amongst other aspects, demonstrable change in all aspects of political and corporate leadership.
Members then raised a number of comments and questions, which included:
· Thanks to staff - a number of Members expressed their thanks and appreciation to staff for their hard work and maintained support to Medway’s vulnerable children and families during the Covid-19 pandemic.
· Evidence of progress – comments were expressed of the need for clearer evidence to demonstrate progress and outcomes. In response the Director confirmed that measuring impact was a focus of the Improvement Board also and it was something officers were working on to develop the best way of demonstrating real impact. A scaling model was being developed to show the distance travelled in relation to progress which could be shared with Members. The refreshed Improvement Plan would also look substantially different and would update some of the progress measures which were still showing as outstanding within the appendix to the report, but had since been completed.
· Impact of Covid-19 – in response to a query about how the pandemic had impacted on the improvement journey, the Director commented that the pandemic had resulted in some impact to the trajectory of the progress but that continued momentum was being maintained, which had been recognised by Ofsted. He added that the referral rate of safeguarding concerns had dropped since schools had been closed but this was beginning to rise again as lockdown began to be eased. The phased return of schools would help in terms of possible spikes in referrals as would improved partnership working to manage the service post lockdown. He also stated that through the lockdown the Council had worked closely with schools and built a strengthened relationship with them that would be continued going forward. The Commissioner added that her role had been extended to oversee Medway’s response to operating services during the pandemic and she considered Medway’s response to be rigorous, robust and child focused.
· Audits – in response to a question about quality assurance and audits, officers confirmed that this was a critical area of focus going forward and would provide more detail on this in future reports.
· Member training – in relation to member training the Children’s Commissioner stated that Medway needed to develop its Members to be able to provide good challenge in the long term and this Committee, along with the Corporate Parenting Board, were key forums for that. She explained that there were a number of different ways to undertake effective scrutiny which needed to be explored.
· Workforce – the Director explained that ten social workers had been recruited from South Africa, but the travel restrictions relating to Covid-19 had resulted in a delay of their arrival to Medway. This was now anticipated to be October and agency staff had been retained for the extended intervening period. It was added that some agency staff had recently converted to permanent staff due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the desire this had created for the security provided by permanent employment.
· Engagement with families – in response to questions about the impact of social distancing in relation to engagement with service users, officers confirmed that engagement had continued in a variety of ways. Video calling was being used where it was safe and appropriate to do so, doorstep visits were also taking place. Where social workers were required to carry out a Section 47 visit due to child protection concerns, they would attend using Personal Protection Equipment.
· Edge of care and Adolescent Teams – responding to requests, officers undertook to provide further information on these.
· Avoiding drift in Child Protection Cases – assurances were sought that the progress made in addressing drift would continue Officers explained that a number of checks and balancing measures had been implemented, along with improved working relationships with legal colleagues and the Family Group Conferencing service, which were both now more embedded into the Children’s Social Work Service. This also meant families were better supported to keep children with their family where it was safe and appropriate to do so.
· The 0-25 Disability Service – concern was raised regarding extending the scope of the 0-25 Disability Service to include safeguarding and court work as it was felt some parents were reluctant to engage with the service and the inclusion of these functions could worsen that. The Director explained that this was planned in response to criticism by Ofsted of the service not providing these functions but that officers would work with the Medway Parent and Carer Forum to address these concerns.
· Engagement with staff – officers confirmed that the Staff Engagement Forum consisted of approximately 20 members of staff and two of those representatives were also members of the Improvement Board. The Director welcomed the suggestion of organising an updated staff survey and added that further opportunities for the Committee to engage with frontline staff would also be explored as social distancing eased.
· Effective scrutiny – in response to a question about how the committee could ensure effective scrutiny, the Children’s Commissioner explained that there were many creative ways to conduct effective scrutiny, particularly reality checking and hearing directly from young people, families and front line staff, which can feed back to the Committee and form part of its core business.
The Committee noted the report and requested a report on the Edge of Care and Adolescent Services and that a staff survey for Children’s Services staff be developed and delivered and reported back to the Committee in due course.
Councillors Cooper, Howcroft-Scott and Johnson requested that their votes in favour of the decision be recorded.