Doncaster MBC’s responsibility for children’s services is to be handed to an independent trust, after a government-commissioned report said the council should no longer run the service.
The long-awaited report, by the academic Julian Le Grand, identified a “culture of failure and disillusion that pervades the service” and called for a new body to take it over.
It said the arrangement would take the unprecedented step of creating a “new understanding of accountability in law”. In practice this would mean the new trust, a not-for-profit company, would carry out the council’s legal responsibilities relating to child protection on behalf of the secretary of state, it said.
A statement from the Department for Education said education secretary Michael Gove “agrees with Julian Le Grand’s recommendations to remove all children’s services other than education from Doncaster council and establish a new independent, not for profit trust to deliver them.”
However, Doncaster’s elected mayor Ros Jones (Lab) has said she is “disappointed” with the recommendations and the report has attracted a critical responses from the sector.
The Le Grand report said Doncaster’s problems dated back to 2005, and since then there had been a “constant cycle of improvement and regression”.
Professor Le Grand, left, acknowledged in the report that some people involved in the service believed an “apparently endless series of outside reviews and reports (including this one) were themselves destabilising and damaging to further progress”.
However, he said, a major overhaul was necessary. He outlined a view that “the problems in Doncaster were so deep-seated, and so fundamental to the corporate and service culture, that tinkering with existing systems would not, and could not, deliver the step-changes for necessary improvement”.
The council should still run its education services, but not children’s social care, the report said. It suggested that the chief executive of the trust could also hold the statutory post of director of children’s services, and manage the council’s education services.
The council’s role would be to agree a strategy for improvement, allocate resources to children’s services and scrutinise the performance of the new trust.
It said the trust should take over on 1st April 2014, a timeframe Mr Gove has today said he agrees with. The report said the trust should have a five-year contract, which could be extended for a further five years, and a five-year budget that would be agreed by Doncaster MBC and education secretary Michael Gove. The DfE should fund the establishment of the new body at first, it said.
Mr Gove has also announced that Alan Wood, who worked on the report with Professor Le Grand and is director of children’s services at Hackney LBC, would be appointed as a new children’s social care commissioner at Doncaster, tasked with making sure the council implemented the report’s recommendations.
Doncaster has been given a draft direction from the DfE and Department for Communities and Local Government, which proposes the appointment of the commissioner and the establishment of the new independent trust to run the council’s children’s services. Mr Gove has asked the council to make “any representations” on the draft direction by 13th August, and has said a formal direction will be issued shortly after this date.
Mr Gove has also offered Doncaster MBC a £250,000 contribution towards the work it is doing with consultancy firm Impower to improve the services. Impower was announced as the council’s “improvement partner” last month.
The Le Grand report has attracted critical responses from the sector, detailed below.
The future of Doncaster’s children’s services has been in question since November 2012, when an Ofsted report found it was “not doing what is required to keep children and young people safe”.
Following the publication of the Ofsted report, which coincided with a separate report from the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile on a violent attack by two boys in the council’s care in Edlington, Mr Gove said a new form of intervention would be needed.
The council as a whole has been subject to government intervention since a highly critical Audit Commission report in 2010 with a recovery board and commissioners still in operation.
Ros Jones, Doncaster’s elected mayor (Lab), said in response to the report: “I have made it clear since the moment I was announced as mayor that children’s services was my top priority and what matters above everything else is improving outcomes for Doncaster’s children and families. That remains the case. I am disappointed that it is being recommended that an independent trust is the way children’s services could be delivered in Doncaster. I don’t agree with the ‘outsourcing’ recommendation and feel that Doncaster Council has not been given the opportunity to show how we can improve under my leadership.
“We have only, this month, started work with our improvement partner and a new director of children’s services and would have wanted to show how we can and will improve, however that opportunity has been denied us. We are one of two councils in the country which has taken the innovative step of working with an improvement partner and we believe we should not be distracted from improving children’s services. The report, in my view, is backward looking and historical and does not give enough credit or credence for what we want to achieve.
“We now have weeks to respond to the consultation on the trust proposal. Whatever the outcome, I am clear that the future of children’s services is of vital importance to me as mayor and we will work with whatever option is determined and with whoever is brought in to better the future of young people and children in our borough.”
The Le Grand report also said:
- There was “an abundance of evidence that testifies to long-standing service and corporate problems with Doncaster children’s services”.
- Problems included an inability to sustain a stable workforce, the high use of agency staff, high turnover and high sickness rates.
- There had been “various management failures, and numerous examples of failings with the performance management/reporting arrangements”.
- There was little “hard evidence” to show improvements since Ofsted found the service “inadequate” in November 2012.
- Given that a high level of agency workers was seen as part of the problem, it was “ironic” that the council had appointed new agency staff as an improvement measure in response to Ofsted’s criticisms.
- Council members and senior officials said no further intervention was needed, other than the appointment of a new commissioner for children’s services.
- There was “a culture of failure and disillusion that pervades the service and that serves to obstruct every attempt at reform”.
- The appointment of Impower as an “improvement partner”, announced last month, was necessary but insufficient. It would not “inspire the necessary wholesale culture and behaviour change that will deal with the major problems of staff absence, recruitment and retention”.
- The trust’s board would consist of an independent chair appointed by the new children’s services commissioner, a chief executive, other executive directors, and two or three non-executive directors.
- One of the non-executive directors should be appointed by the secretary of state and one be appointed by Doncaster’s elected mayor.
- There should be two staff representatives on the board.
- Doncaster’s staff should be transferred to the trust under TUPE regulations.
Mark Rogers, chief executive of Solihull MBC and Solace’s lead on children’s services, warned that the Le Grand proposals “substantially weaken the ability of local politicians and senior managers to hold the service to account”, adding that intervention by central government did not have a successful track record.
He said Doncaster’s children’s services has had at least six external inspections and reports in eight years, and this continual assessment was not helping the council to improve.
He said he was “sceptical” that a “complex, uncertain and time-consuming organisational restructure would be helpful at this time” because the council needed stability in order to improve.
“As management attention is focussed on the creation of a new trust there is a risk that the ball is dropped on safeguarding,” he said.
Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “ADCS strongly believes that local government should be expected to lead and drive its own improvement in all of its services. This is especially the case for services for safeguarding and protecting our children.”
He said intervention by the secretary of state in a council’s services was “not a matter for ADCS”. However, he added, creating a trust had “potential unintended consequences” and it would be important to avoid “potentially negative fragmentation of services”.
David Simmonds (Con), chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Since its last Ofsted inspection the council has been working with other local authorities to improve its services. The LGA has also offered further support and it’s disappointing that the Department for Education has not taken this offer up. As a sector we will continue to support those councils who need help to fulfil their ambition of doing the very best for children and providing the kind of good quality services they rightly deserve.
“While much remains to be done in Doncaster, the recent elections have created an opportunity for a new direction. Accountability to local residents is vital and they will want to know how the new management will be held to account for the services they provide.”
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