Will £25 Million make it better?

Following on from the review presented to the Wirral Schools Forum . in which it stated that:

Special schools in Wirral cannot collectively meet the needs or the demands of all Wirral children with SEND at the current time, as nearly all schools are at capacity.

I read with interest the papers from the Children and Families Overview and Budget Scrutiny Committee. ( which I am not a member.)

It is no surprise that this Labour administration’s answer to the issues that exist in this area, so denigrated by Ofsted, is to pour more and more money, (£25 million), into it without seeming to address what appears to be the real issue, which is poor management and a systemic lack of consistency.

Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee Date: Thursday, 25 January 2018 Time: 6.00 pm Venue: Committee Room 1 – Wallasey Town Hall

AGENDA – supplementary papers 9. CHILDREN AND FAMILIES OSC – FEEDBACK FROM BUDGET SCRUTINY (2018/19) (Pages 1 – 12)

The base Children’s Services budget for 2017/18 is £78million. However, the equivalent budget for 2018/19 is £103million; an increase of £25million. £10million of the budget requirement is a continuation of the Improvement Plan approved during 2017/18 and a further £15million relates to demand pressures largely associated with previous and anticipated growth in looked after children. The numbers of looked after children have grown to a current number of 850 whereas the 2018/19 budget assumes growth to 900. The additional investment and planned service improvements envisage a reduction in looked after children to 672 by April 2021.

The majority of the £10 million Improvement Plan (2017/18) has been spent on additional social workers, placing significant pressures on the ability to recruit sufficient suitable staff. As a result, short-term expenditure on agency staff has risen and may continue in the near future. While permanent appointments are now being made, additional recruitment is planned to continue.

From the section above it would appear that the problems are in the rising number of children taken into care and securing the right amount and level of staff which is causing the department to struggle.

However the following questions from Council Members and the answers from the Officers seem to point in a different direction.

COMMITTEE MEMBERS’ COMMENTS

Staff recruitment Member comment:

A member welcomed the plans to recruit more staff particularly frontline social workers. It was, however, noted that the ability to recruit and retain staff was not only an issue of salary but also included the wider working environment. As Ofsted had identified some areas of poor front-line management what can be done to provide more focus on those standards?

Officer response: It is important to understand that, across the social work profession, staff feel safe in their practice when they have competent managers. It is acknowledged that front-line social work management is a very tough role.

Member comment: The ambition is to reduce the numbers of looked after children from the current number of 850 to a predicted 672 by 2021. How can this appear to be not a cost-cutting exercise?

Officer response: The predicted reduction in the numbers of children in care is nothing to do with achieving savings. The current number of looked after children in Wirral is too high and cannot be justified. It is a symptom of poor practice. There is a fallacy that care is always better for the young person. To be of merit the young person needs to be better off by being in care.

Pace of change Member comment: Will there be a conflict between the pace for change and the ability to reduce the number of children in care safely?

 Officer response: There is no conflict because putting the correct actions in place will result in improvement in practice. The number of children in care is a symptom of the weakness in practice.

Member comment: What is the meaning of Ofsted referring to social workers as being too optimistic about the progress which children might make?

 Officer response: Optimism is a euphemism for not concentrating sufficiently on the child. In that case, social workers need to understand what the life of the child is really like.

Member comment: Remodelling of the youth service has taken place which has resulted in the development of the Hive in addition to the centres in the localities. It is important to ensure that there is a continuing service outside the Hive.

Officer response: There is a risk that all of the funding goes into one facility. Further work will be required to ensure a future strategy is in place. Early help services are critical.

The Chair concluded the session by highlighting the following issues:

  • Investment in Children’s Services needs to prioritise quality of services for the child. There is no direct correlation between money spent and the quality of the service;
  • Appropriate placements need to be provided which really benefit the individual child;
  • The workforce is absolutely key to the improvement process with an effective support structure for social workers being in place;
  • The initial focus on social workers should not take away from the importance of well resourced and targeted early help services;

If there is a hole in the bucket surely you don’t just keep adding water, you fix the hole.

If the system is not working it needs to change and good management is needed, not only to see what is required, but to enable the changes. In Wirral Council we have too many interim managers, non managers thrust into managerial roles and contract staff who cost the earth and are transient in their outlook.

From the answers given by the officers it would also appear that there is a clear lack of understanding by the administration of what it is that needs fixing.

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