Children’s social care ‘on the road to recovery’
After seven years in Government special measures and regarded as one of the worst social care departments in the country, Birmingham children’s services appears to have turned a corner.
Social worker vacancies are down from 56 in 2014 to 10 in September 2015 and staff turnover has decreased from 27 per cent to 20 per cent leading to greater stability in the workforce and more consistency for children and families, according to a city council progress report.
While social workers were once overwhelmed and dealing with upwards of 40 child abuse cases each, the average caseload is now a more manageable 18.
An additional £31 million has been invested into the service by the council since 2014-15, with children’s social care given special protection against the spending cuts that are hitting other departments.
The report by council leader Sir Albert Bore, cabinet member Brigid Jones, children’s strategic director Peter Hay and chief executive Mark Rogers stresses there is still some way to go “to ensure all children and families receive a responsive and effective service that engages with them to enable positive change”.
And it warns more work is needed to improve systems and processes, information and data sharing around child sexual exploitation children missing from home, care and education, and children who might be influenced by radicalisation.
But for the first time since 2008 there is a glimmer of hope that the council can escape from special measures. The Department for Education is considering whether it needs to replace Lord Warner, the Government-appointed children’s commissioner for Birmingham who left his post in May. A decision not to appoint a new commissioner would signal that the council is on the right track.
The report notes that recruitment of newly qualified social workers, social workers, team managers and foster carers is improving. There is a new contract in place to procure agency staff through a single agency and this will over time reduce cost and improve quality.
In July 2014 the Council launched the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) bringing together social workers, police, health professionals, schools and the probation service to share information about children at risk of sexual or physical abuse.
The report states:
In the first six months there was a big increase in contact and referrals resulting in more child protection plans, more assessments and higher caseloads as well as high levels of unallocated work.
In the last six months the early help response has improved , assessment teams have been set up to respond to child in need work and there have been fruitful discussions with partners about thresholds for child protection enquiries. As a result contact, referral and assessment rates have stabilised at manageable levels, the amount of unallocated cases has dramatically reduced and average caseloads are now 18.
There is a cultural shift from a focus on process/repeated assessment towards more direct work with families to enable them to make positive changes and thus improve outcomes for the children.
The aim is that by undertaking more direct social work interventions with families it will be possible to support more children to live at home with their families safely. This requires a change in culture in the social work teams with social workers providing more direct work and evidence-based interventions as part of the child in need or child protection plan. It also requires stronger management oversight, support and practice leadership.
For the first time in years the council has stability in its social services senior management team, putting paid to “a cycle of interim leadership change and failure to drive effective practice change which has characterised Birmingham’s recent history”.
The report continues:
Senior managers are being held to account for their leadership and performance and action is being taken when deficits are apparent.
There is strong political commitment to improving outcomes for children in Birmingham and supporting children’s services with resources and the tools to deliver these outcomes.
The service has moved from an initial period of stabilisation to the implementation of a series of critical improvements in line with the agreed improvement plan. The focus in year two of the plan now shifts to the quality of practice and more effective and early interventions with families aimed at enabling positive changes, preventing family breakdown and improving care planning for children and young people.
Cllr Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, said:
The work our staff and partners have put in to the first year of our improvement plan has been incredible.
The multi-agency safeguarding hub, launched in 2014, has been praised by Ofsted and Lord Warner and is now our first port of call for concerns about a child to be triaged quickly and effectively.
We’re now working to improve practice at the next stages in a child’s journey, and to find ways to stop children needing our help in the first place. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve got firm foundations in place and, with our partners, we will continue to build on them.
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