A NORTH-East local authority has been told it will keep control of its children’s services after they were judged to have serious and widespread failings.

Middlesbrough’s children’s services were rated inadequate by Ofsted in January, when inspectors said vulnerable children were not being protected and youngsters were living in “chronic neglect” for too long.

The Secretary of State of Education has now approved a report by Peter Dwyer, the commissioner for children’s services, saying the council should retain control of the department.

The report, released today, said initial progress had been made and has outlined what the council must do next.

Middlesbrough mayor Andy Preston said: “I made clear after the Ofsted report that we had no excuses for letting Middlesbrough children down and need to repeat that today.

“I’d like to thank the commissioner for his work – his expertise will be invaluable for our dedicated staff in the months ahead.

“Retaining control of the service is the result we wanted, but we know how much work is still required. This is the first significant step on a long road of recovery for the council.

“The town’s children are our number one priority. We’ve got big ambitions for Middlesbrough and those ambitions are all about the future of our young people.”

The report by Mr Dwyer said: “Whilst there is still so much to do and the pace of progress on that improvement journey has been affected by Covid-19, there are also evident strengths which should be allowed to further flourish.

“Immediate assurance plans are in place and new political and officer leaders are instilling a new sense of shared confidence at least within the local authority.”

It adds: “The organisation has been seeking to deliver improvement at pace during the unparalleled challenges posed by Covid- 19.

“In my assessment, they have responded to Covid-19 impressively. Such challenges may have helpfully reinforced elements of necessary culture change, but they must also have impacted upon the speed of delivery of required improvement. 

The Ofsted report, which was published in January and followed an inspection in November and December last year, concluded:  “Since the last inspection in 2015, the quality of children’s services in Middlesbrough has deteriorated and services are now inadequate.

“There are serious and widespread failures that leave children in harmful situations for too long.

“Risks to children and young people, including those who are being exploited, are not appropriately recognised, and insufficient action is taken to help and protect children.

“Leaders had recognised that significant improvements still need to be made but had not fully identified the extent of the inadequacy at the point of inspection.”

Middlesbrough is one of the most deprived local authority areas in the country, with 30 per cent of the town’s wards in the most deprived one per cent in England.

The council spends 35 per cent of its budget on children’s services amid reduced government funding, having risen from 13 per cent in 2010.

The report says prior to the most recent Ofsted report, the care population appeared “out of control”.

Between May 2018 and December 2019, there was an increase of more than 150 children in the care system, a rise of 30 per cent.

Nationally, there was a four per cent increase in the care population in 2018/19.

The council had planned to use external residential care to achieve £1.4m in efficiency savings.

However, it actually led to an annual run rate of £6m overspend.

The report adds: “Of most concern is that this picture did not appear to generate or lead to the effective delivery of an adequate local collective response.

“The local authority has lacked a detailed sufficiency strategy to deliver the local family placements and edge of care provision so clearly needed.”

Steps taken

  • An additional £3.3m has been made available over two years to enhance capacity, particularly around leadership, system development, programme and performance management
  • A further recurring £3.6m has been added to the core budget due to historic overspends, particularly arising from placement costs
  • Previous deficits in practice knowledge and wisdom at a senior level of the children’s social care service appear to have been addressed, with new senior appointments made
  • The 12 week Assurance Plan was well structured with clear milestones/ownership and progress is updated and monitored on a weekly basis including risk analysis
  • The work to produce an overarching improvement plan is advanced and benefits from dedicated capacity from an independent source
  • There is a real local appetite for the No Wrong Door (NWD) programme
  • The organisation is keen to better understand workload within the social work teams. Decisions have been made to enhance capacity by investing in two additional temporary teams in assessment and in child protection/child in need
  • Stronger connections have been made to ensure that this learning feeds directly into the work to enhance the focus of training and development of staff, the work of the principal social worker and the development of a planned Centre for Excellence

Councillor Antony High, Middlesbrough’s deputy mayor and executive member for children’s services, added: “As the commissioner said in his report, children and young people in Middlesbrough need access to the highest quality of services and that is what we intend to deliver.

“There’s a lot of work to do and we’re determined to put things right.

“The commitment of our staff has never been in doubt and they will give their all to turn this situation around.”

The commissioner will continue to work with the Council for a number of days each month and will submit further reports to the Government in November 2020 and May 2021.