After months of bad news and criticism, there was an air of cautious optimism at West Sussex County Council when members met to look at improvements being made to its children’s services.
In May, a damning report from Ofsted identified ‘widespread and serious weaknesses’ across the service and led to calls for council leader Louise Goldsmith to resign.
Four months later and, with a mountain of challenges to be met, the children and young people’s services select committee was given an update on Wednesday on the progress of the Children First Improvement Plan.
It’s still very early days for the plan, which was set up to address 12 points for improvement laid down by Ofsted.
It has been sent to the Department for Education and Ofsted for feedback, and committee chairman Paul High said: “It looks like we’re heading in the right direction.”
One of the biggest concerns raised was the workload endured by social workers, which was exacerbated by problems recruiting and keeping staff.
Some staff were responsible for 25-30 cases when the average expected was 15. Others were criticised as being ‘not up to the job’, prompting Unison to accuse the authority of passing the blame for the poor report down the chain of command.
Now though, the meeting was told, the average case-load for experienced staff was 18-22, with new staff working on 12. The aim is to reduce that to 18 and 10 respectively.
Progress has been made in filling social worker vacancies, with a gap of two per cent – nine posts – to fill. In February it was 18.5 per cent and in August it was 5.19 per cent.
Cllr Paul Marshall, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “It’s an extremely good step – not one we can be complacent about – it’s a real challenge for us.
“We need to demonstrate to all our personnel that we value them, we’ll support them, we recognise the work they do and will continue to give them the best environment in which to deliver good outputs for our children and young people.”
Ofsted will carry out six monitoring visits over the next two years to ensure things are progressing as expected, with the first due to take place on December 3/4.
If the inspectors are not happy, West Sussex could lose control of the services.
Cllr Goldsmith added: “Having visited in the summer, I was very, very impressed with the level of care that was demonstrated there. So different from a discussion at last year’s meeting.
“What it shows is that our capability and capacity to improve where we need to is there. With commitment and working together we will achieve and improve these services to a very good standard.”
The committee will receive regular updates on the improvement plan and has asked to receive more data about case-loads and vacancies. It has also asked to hear from front-line staff about their experiences.
Report by Karen Dunn, local democracy reporter