Government concern over pace of improvement at Bucks’ children’s service

David Johnston
David Johnston

The pace of improvement in a council department which aims to protect vulnerable children has been criticised by the government.

Bucks County Council’s children’s service was slammed by Ofsted in August 2014 for putting youngsters at risk.

The latest monitoring visit by the Department for Education took place in November and initial feedback is that ‘overall practice is improving but there is still inconsistency and variability’ and there is ‘concern over the pace of improvement’.

Their final report is expected in February but it raises the possibility of the department being removed from the council’s control. In December David Cameron announced that poorly performing children’s services not improving quickly enough would be taken over by high-performing authorities, experts and charities.

Children’s services boss David Johnston, who was appointed in December 2014, said: “In terms of whether the government would want to take over the service, the indication is that where there are weaknesses or failings within the local authority and they are not making progress, then they would consider taking a further intervention.

“I believe that where they see there is progress and it is moving in the right direction, they will continue to monitor closely to ensure that the improvement continues.

“So at the moment I am not anticipating it, but then again these are ministerial decisions and those decisions we can’t always predict.”

He said the regular monitoring visits have ‘had a big impact on staff morale because it feels like constant scrutiny, when all the staff want to do is get on and work’.

“As far as possible I and other senior managers try and keep those discussions with outside bodies to ourselves and try not to allow too much day to day impact on the staff.

“But they are aware of it and that does have an impact.”

The council recently invited the Local Government Association to conduct a ‘peer review’ of the department.

It found strengths including ‘hard work and tenacity, commitment and additional resources, some promising practices and approaches’ and the fact the council is actively seeking support.

However, it said the department needs to strive for greater consistency of practice, be more accurate with its analysis, take responsibility for past failings, improve the relationship between frontline staff and managers and take better stock of children’s cultural backgrounds.

Mr Johnston said: “Their view is that we have made progress but in some areas progress has been greater than others.

“For example they thought in some of our files the methodology for social work practice wasn’t as clear and consistent as it should be. This is the way that the social workers practice and if the model isn’t clear families might be getting slightly different services or the quality of service may be different.

“They did acknowledge that we have now have a senior management team in place, and that that has been effective, they have only been in place since the end of August so we are relatively new into that.

“You don’t turn around a tanker like this in a fortnight,” he added.