Three missed opportunities to sort out children’s social care

By - Monday 5th February, 2018

The council’s management of children’s services is failing badly

Photo public domain.

Croydon Labour council leader Tony Newman, and the cabinet member for children, families and learning, Councillor Alisa Flemming, missed no fewer than three opportunities to intervene to correct falling standards in the department in the run-up to the council failing its Ofsted inspection of children’s services last summer. I am now the leader of the Conservative opposition, but was cabinet member for children, families and learning from 2008 to 2014.

Most people are aware that schools are inspected by Ofsted to ensure they are giving the best possible education to our children and grandchildren. Fewer are aware that Ofsted is also charged with inspecting the teams of social workers who respond to reports of child abuse or neglect, and rate their effectiveness. Unfortunately, the Ofsted team which went into the council last summer concluded that Croydon’s work was inadequate across the board – the lowest-possible rating.

Ofsted’s report outlines a catalogue of problems in how social work is carried out in the council. During the inspection Ofsted even had to direct the council to take immediate action in the cases of some of the children whose files they inspected, so concerned were the examiners by the decisions (or lack of them) that the council had made.

Councillor Tony Newman claimed he was not told about the problems in the service

At the time, the leader of the council, Councillor Tony Newman, repeatedly claimed that officers had never told the politicians like him about the problems in the service. In a double-header interview on BBC Radio London with me and Vanessa Feltz he told the whole of London that “the service is not of the standard we were being advised it was, it is only in July, literally two months ago, that the chair of the independent safeguarding board, our key adviser in Croydon, advised us the service was in a much stronger position”. He went on to say, “there’s clearly been a failure to connect between the front line and the strategic position of the council” (whatever that means!).

Later in the interview, he said “in an area like this, you are very reliant on the data, on the advice you are getting and when you have your own independent chair of the independent safeguarding board telling you the service is improving, not good enough, but improving, and then Ofsted find[s] what [it] did, it is truly shocking”.

Indeed it is. What has emerged since, though, is even more shocking. Newman refers to the chair of the safeguarding board, but it is now clear that the circumstances of the appointment of that chair should have set alarm bells ringing in the town hall. Back in autumn 2014, the council appointed a new chair of the safeguarding board, Catherine Doran. In February 2016, less than halfway through her term, she resigned. Her reasons, at the time, were kept secret. However, according to the report sent recently to ministers by the government-appointed commissioner (who supervises services of failing authorities after an inspection), she “resigned in February 2016 giving as her reasons that neither the then-Chief Executive nor the then-Executive Director had responded sufficiently to her concerns. Her concerns related to both practice issues and to the lack of performance information”.

The council leader would not have been unaware of the reasons for Doran’s departure

It is inconceivable to me that the leader and cabinet member would have been unaware of the reasons for the departure of the person given responsibility for monitoring the council’s safeguarding and social-work performance. And, interestingly, the two council officers referred to in the quotation had both departed from their posts within four months of the resignation of Ms Doran. And yet the two councillors responsible both felt entirely comfortable with going on the radio and stating that nobody had told them that there were problems.

Sadly, that’s not the only opportunity that they had to tackle the very real problems in social care before Ofsted exposed them. An inspection of part of the service in March 2016 concluded that “management oversight at all levels is weak. Supervision is ineffective in the majority of cases seen by inspectors. For some, there were long gaps in the frequency of supervision, and records show a lack of reflection and clarity about actions required in a significant number of cases. This leads to a lack of direction and purposeful work with children, and contributes to unnecessary drift and delay. Senior managers have not created good conditions in which social workers can flourish. A number of social workers told inspectors that they are not clear about what they need to do”.

This second opportunity to act was also missed. There is no evidence that anything changed after this report.

Reports were produced that highlighted the problems

And there was a third. The much-maligned (by Newman) safeguarding board was actually beavering away producing reports which highlighted the problems. It is worth noting that whilst Councillor Newman does not himself attend the safeguarding board, the cabinet member for children, Councillor Alisa Flemming, does (but no opposition politician does or is even allowed to see the papers or minutes). In a report written in December 2016 for the board, the head of the social care quality assurance team wrote: “In the overall analysis, practice week [which rolls concludes that our service requires improvement but is on the cusp of inadequate, with some deterioration in practice since October 2015".

The report goes on to list significant failings in how children at risk are identified, how their care is planned, how the authority works with the courts to intervene and how social workers don't receive adequate supervision (again).

Three opportunities to intervene earlier and start to correct the problems were all missed. The same criticisms of the service made over and over again, yet the politicians in charge either didn't see or didn't care. They only started to take the problem seriously when Ofsted slammed the service and their jobs were on the line.

It’s a case of locking the stable door after the horse has already bolted

To be fair, things are now changing – but it’s a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Conservative councillor for Croham (and shadow cabinet member for children’s services) Maria Gatland has been invited to join the ‘improvement board’ set up to deal with the problem. That’s the first time an opposition politician has been invited to participate and given the information necessary to hold the service to account. That’s a positive step.

However, it highlights the other problem. I did Councillor Fleming’s job from 2008 to 2014, and so I have six years’ experience including steering the authority through the previous Ofsted inspection (which we did not fail). Not once, in the aftermath of the change of control, did my Labour replacement ever meet with me to pick my brains or enquire what aspects of the service I had been focusing on. That’s six years of experience down the drain.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Such is the arrogance of many in the political classes that they cannot believe that they can ever learn anything from the members of the party whom they have supplanted. I like to think that if I am leader of the council after the May elections, that’s a trap that I won’t fall into.

Tim Pollard

Tim Pollard

Tim has lived in Sanderstead for twenty years and has been working hard for local residents since his first election as a Councillor there in 2002. Tim is the Leader of the Conservative Councillors on Croydon Council. The Croydon Conservative manifesto for the 2018 election can be found at

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  • Charlotte Davies

    This is an area of Council business where party politics should not even come through the door. As an education professional, who has picked up odd kids over years who are at risk, things have never been great. Croydon has a huge number of at risk children and hence a big job to do. It is a complex area which is massively under-funded.
    I am not sure that there is a good job happening anywhere in the UK or Ireland. Some countries in Europe are better than others.
    We are seeing a massive change in our understanding of how children develop and how they are affected by trauma. Our understanding of mental health will change out of all recognition in the next 20 years as our shared understanding of cognitive processing improves.
    We can all work together on this and share our knowledge and keep costs low or we can do as is current practice, adopt a policy of neglect and confrontation.
    Let’s all dream the dream and make excellence in this area a reality for all our children in Croydon. Let’s work effectively for the long-term on a solution that works and that we are all committed to.

  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article!

  • Sean Creighton

    As one who as been many times been accused of petty nit-picking, it is unfortunate that Tim undermines his central concern by doing so. The unfortunate saga raises serious concerns about whether the way the Scrutiny system works in Croydon is adequate, for which both political parties are responsible for. It is clear that the system did not work but the Council’s ability to improve has been recognised. It will be helped by having the peer review arrangement with Camden. Ofsted and and the Minister hey are satisfied on progress and plans.

    Key questions that need to be asked include

    (1) are there enough social workers and support staff to handle the very large complexity of the demands Croydon’s Children’s Services;

    (2) are those complexities recognised in funding from the Government;

    (3) will continuing funding cuts by Government to Councils undermine the ability to improve;

    (4) how much additional development training is needed by staff;

    (5) are admin support systems supportive or stumbling blocks;

    (6 ) are the senior and middle managers staff sufficiently experienced given the wide scope of their responsibilities;

    (7) could the demands on the services be reduced if the learning and behavioural difficulties some children experience are picked up much earlier?

    With two fellow School Governors I have raised concerns with the Deputy Cabinet member about delays in the administration of some of the process involved in having Health and Educational Care plans approved and funded, which is being looked at.

    Charlotte is quite right. It is to be hoped that with the publication of the book by her social enterprise Fit2Learn that the appropriate staff in Children’s Services and in schools will receive training in tackling children’s motor skills and co-ordination which lie at the root of some learning difficulties and aggravate others.