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Northants' children's services deteriorate amid financial uncertainty

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Financial uncertainty at Northamptonshire CC has resulted in services for vulnerable children “significantly” declining in the last two years, inspectors have found.

Children were found by Ofsted to be “not consistently or effectively assessed, supported or protected”, with concerns raised about poor management and a lack of capacity in the workforce.

Ofsted’s focused inspection of the county’s multi-agency safeguarding hub, which took place over two days last month, concluded: “Against a backdrop of recent significant financial uncertainty and changes in leadership at corporate and managerial levels, services considered during this visit have significantly declined in the past two years since the single inspection in 2016.

“This uncertainty has contributed to significant shortfalls in social work capacity across the service, resulting in unmanageable caseloads and high volumes of unallocated and unassessed work. Senior leaders are aware of these serious weaknesses and have taken remedial action to respond. However, this has not been effective or with sufficient urgency or rigour.”

Inspectors noted that the new senior leadership team had started to address weaknesses, including setting up a new social care board.

However, at the time of the inspection, there were 267 children in need of a statutory assessment and social work intervention who did not have an allocated social worker.

Ofsted’s report, published today, said: “Capacity to allocate children’s cases has been a longstanding problem since the beginning of 2018. The number of unallocated cases has reduced from 551 in January but has remained stubbornly between 200 and 300.

“Although senior managers had taken action to review these cases either shortly before or during the focused visit, in cases sampled by inspectors there was no evidence of risk being identified, managed or robustly reviewed. This lack of oversight and poor management leaves children at potential risk of harm.”

While leaders “are acutely aware of the negative impact of an unstable workforce on the quality of support to children” and have “taken action to review and re-evaluate pay and rewards for staff and to refocus recruitment”, the report said “much instability in the workforce remains, and it is made more fragile by an over-reliance on agency workers”.

Northamptonshire, which has issued two section 114 notices this year, is attempting to make in-year savings of up to £70m on a net revenue budget of £441m.

Responding to the report, Victoria Perry (Con), cabinet member for children, families and education, said: “We know that our children’s services are not working well and we will put this right. It is clear from the findings from Ofsted that these failures in the system have taken place over the last two years and we are now completely focused on recovering from these failures.

“We are pleased the inspectors recognise the new senior leadership team in place at the council has begun to tackle the weaknesses in the service which have arisen since 2016. The issues had started to be identified prior to Ofsted’s focused inspection.

“While we will need to focus on improvements in safeguarding it is also equally critical we do far better in early help and prevention.”

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