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Devon’s “well-coordinated and effective” response for vulnerable children

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Devon’s vital children’s services have provided a well-coordinated and effective response to the challenges of COVID, according to Government inspectors.

They say Devon County Council and its partners have risen to the enormous challenges of protecting and caring for vulnerable children throughout successive lockdowns.

But they say improvements are still needed in the quality of assessments, management oversight and scrutiny.

Five Ofsted inspectors conducted a two-day, virtual inspection of children’s social care in Devon in May and their report has just been published.

The report concludes:

“The challenges associated with successive national lockdowns have been enormous.

“With 371 schools spread across a vast geographical area, it has not been easy to keep children, particularly the most vulnerable, in sight and safe.

“The complexity and volume of referrals that the local authority is receiving have increased significantly.

“The local authority and its partners have risen to the challenge, delivering a well-coordinated and effective response.

“During the pandemic, social workers have continued to maintain regular contact with children who are the subject of child in need or child protection plans. Most social workers have felt well supported (by the county council).

“Statutory partners are enthusiastic about the potential for Devon’s safeguarding children partnership arrangements to make a real difference.

“Focusing on those issues that have mattered most during the pandemic has given them an opportunity to work together at speed.”

The inspectors say that when the first lockdown was announced in March last year, Devon was still adjusting to the impact and implications of an Ofsted report identifying serious weaknesses in children’s social care which had been published earlier in the month.

“During the intervening period, senior leaders have successfully carried out a number of ‘under the bonnet repairs’,” they say.

“But nothing is completely fixed. In reality, the local authority is still at the start of its improvement journey.”

Since the Ofsted report last year, Devon has appointed a new Chief Officer of Children’s Services, Melissa Caslake, who took up her appointment in February this year, and a new acting Head of Children’s Social Care, Vivien Lines.

The new report says that prompt action is taken to protect children at immediate risk of harm but decision-making in less urgent cases still takes too long.

But the inspectors add:

“Senior leaders are taking appropriate action to ensure that all children get the help and support they need quickly.

“Arrangements for responding to children who go missing from home or care or are exposed to exploitation are well developed.”

Most children who come into care do so in a planned way but the quality of support they receive in care is too variable. More vigour and urgency is required in progressing their care plans.

The inspectors were concerned about how the multi-agency safeguarding hub or MASH, which screens referrals, linked with Devon’s four initial response teams but senior leaders took immediate action to address their issues.

And the report highlights that workforce stability remains a concern and points out that, until recently, Devon did not have an effective recruitment and retention strategy in a highly competitive jobs market for social workers.

The inspectors conclude:

“There is no reason to doubt the county council’s support for children’s social care services.

“But the quality and effectiveness of scrutiny and critical challenge provided by elected members and the corporate centre are not yet fully developed.”

Devon’s Cabinet member for children’s services and schools, Andrew Leadbetter, said:

“The past 15 months have provided enormous challenges to all our public services and I am pleased with this vote of confidence from Ofsted that vulnerable children in Devon have still received effective help and support despite the restrictions of Covid.

“The pandemic hit just as we were taking the measures needed to respond to last year’s inspection.

“Despite the lockdowns, we have appointed a nationally-recognised practitioner as our new chief officer and I took up my new role after the elections in May.

“Together we are determined to make Devon a place where social workers want to come and help us provide an excellent service to our most vulnerable children and families.

“This is a job for the whole council, including my scrutiny colleagues, and I would invite all political parties to join together to bring about the improvements we need. Make no mistake about it, we are determined to provide the best possible help and support we can to the children who need it most.

“We have already improved the pay and conditions of our social workers and we have plans to make further urgent improvements to staffing, pay and conditions.”

Devon’s chief officer for children’s services, Melissa Caslake, said:

“We have risen to the challenge of Covid, by maintaining our services to children and families during the pandemic, ensuring greater school attendance than nationally, especially for vulnerable children, and enabling schools, partners and communities to come together to deliver a well-co-ordinated and effective response.

“I am proud that Ofsted have recognised this work and want to thank all of my staff and partners who have made this possible through their determination and hard work.

“We have much more to do to deliver the best outcomes for children and we will relentlessly pursue this ambition to ensure children get the service they deserve. I am pleased that the progress made so far, through the efforts and commitment of staff, has been acknowledged.”