Will a more personal approach to children’s services turn things around?
During an hour of scrutiny, Colin Foster, the boss of Northamptonshire Children’s Trust showed how much his work means to him. But will it be enough?
During a recent meeting to which he had been summoned to explain how the children’s trust is getting on, chief executive Colin Foster became emotional and appeared on the verge of tears.
He was telling councillors about the circumstance of a baby who had been taken into care immediately after birth and how one of his social workers had written an account of the day, with details such as what the weather was like. The social worker had penned the report (part of life story work) so that when the baby becomes an adult and views their care file they will have an account of their first hours of their life.
Foster told those at the meeting that under the management of the former failing county council, children’s services made eight staff who undertook life story work with children redundant. The service was then in freefall and its recovery was hampered by the perilous finances of the authority, which was cutting back spend to a bare minimum to balance the books.
In another instance Foster explained that he personally calls people who apply for jobs within his social work team and thanks them for applying. He also ensures they have a response from his team within days of an interview.
The amount Foster is personally investing in the job was clear to see, and he was commended at the scrutiny meeting of the North unitary for his efforts, but there remain big issues in the service, that will take some time to turn around to ensure all children in our county are safeguarded and cared for as well as they should be.
An Ofsted inspection published in the autumn acknowledged the service had improved from inadequate - to where it had been taken by the former county council - to requires improvement.
At the meeting held at Corby Cube last week Foster, who for many years led children’s services in Bedford, admitted the trust was still far from where it needed to be.
“There is still a long way to go. No-one is suggesting we are there yet. This is just a step on the journey.”
He went on to use the example of Essex children’s services which was in the same situation as Northamptonshire back in the mid 2000s and is now viewed as one of the best in the country. He said for Northamptonshire to emulate Essex was ‘doable’.
After several years of poor leadership and practice and a number of tragic cases in which children died while under the watch of children’s services, Northamptonshire had a dreadful reputation, which made it hard to recruit staff. Since the trust took over in the winter 2020, the situation has slightly improved.
Foster’s deputy Cornelia Andrecut told the scrutiny committee:
“There is a lot of work about changing the narrative and we do see people coming who they say they hear that it is different now. So that message is getting out there, which is really good. We work really hard to have the right conditions for staff. The pressure is very high, we do see more cases coming through. We try to keep the caseloads low so they have a manageable number of people that they work with. We help them to do the good job that we want them to do.”
An insider told NN Journal :
“I think staff are feeling happier, but there is a long way to go in terms of sorting things out. I think Colin Foster is genuine and professional and cares very much about the children and the trust.
“They [the trust] inherited a right bag of rubbish from the county council and it will take a long time to turn things around and get new systems in place.
“I think they need another couple of years to really bed down. I think they will stay the distance because they want to make it work.”
The poor reputation, plus an intervention from government and Ofsted circling, meant that many staff left the service in recent years and it was relying on agency staff to fill some roles, particularly in its multi-agency safeguarding hub, which is the first point of call for anyone worried about the safety of a child in the county.
The trust says it is working hard to recruit social workers on a permanent basis but gains are coming very slowly.
Foster said in the past five months the trust had received 586 applications for jobs with around 75 jobs offered, but taking into account leavers, the service was only three staff up.
He said that while not to be celebrated it was indicative of the sector, as other children’s services bosses he speaks to in the region are in deficit with more social workers leaving the service than joining.
The council owned buildings that Northamptonshire children who are in care, or who leave the service at 18 are housed in, is poor. Foster said the trust had inherited an estate which had suffered from years of under-funding. He gave the example of a converted fire station which is being used for children’s accommodation and only has single glazed windows.
Cllr Valerie Anslow, Labour councillor for Wellingborough’s Croyland and Swanspool told him:
“It is our responsibility to provide for those who are leaving care and we have fallen down. It is not acceptable.”
Foster said there was now ‘some really good work with both councils in improving that accommodation’. His deputy said the councils were aware more choice was needed for temporary accommodation and in more varied locations.
The trust is expected to be £13m over its £130m budget (which is given to it by the West and North unitary councils). The majority of the additional costs are due to more children being referred to the service and the increasing cost of placements. Most of the placements are with private providers who can charge thousands per week to look after one child, especially if they have complex needs.
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