Grimsby Town Hall, seat of North East Lincolnshire Council (Image: Alan Chapman / Wikimedia Commons)
North East Lincolnshire Council has avoided transferring services for children to an independent trust for the time being after a government commissioner’s review found such a move posed a “significant risk” of further deterioration in services.
Instead, the Department of Education (DfE) has directed the council – which was found ‘inadequate’ on all counts by Ofsted in November 2021 – to enter into a formal partnership with a peer authority to be identified by the DfE.
The ruling came after Commissioner Peter Dwyer found that many areas of weakness remained in North East Lincolnshire, particularly highlighting its struggles to make big changes while also having to ‘erase’ operational challenges such as high caseloads and unassigned work.
“[Firefighting] Approaches have a long history in the organization, with pressing issues distracting leadership from coherent strategic change activities,” Dwyer cautioned in the new review.
Trouble in the council surfaced in 2019 when a visit from Ofsted found that “excessively high” case numbers put children at risk. The full inspection late last year concluded that managers had failed to prioritize children’s needs, invest adequately in services or address priority actions identified by Ofsted.
“Compelling Reasons” required to maintain the Services
The DfE had said in a statutory order issued earlier this year that it would require “compelling reasons” for North East Lincolnshire’s childcare facilities not to be removed from the council’s control.
But since establishing child service trusts involved an initial period of additional disruption, and there was no guarantee they would be successful, Dwyer decided it was too risky to go that route. Only Bradford City Council, which was the subject of a national review this month into the circumstances surrounding the murder of toddler Star Hobson, was recently ordered to hand over control of its childcare services.
He instead said the council should form a strategic partnership with another “strong” agency to include “integrated leadership” across some or all children’s services, citing evidence of positive impacts elsewhere. This includes enhancing the Isle of Wight through a strategic partnership with Hampshire.
The DfE has accepted this recommendation and will commission an option assessment to determine how the partnership will work. Partner candidates include the highly rated Lincolnshire Council, which Dwyer says has “many years of experience conducting improvement work in partnership with other LAs.”
But the review added that if a formal partnership cannot be established, alternative arrangements, including the establishment of a trust, should be reconsidered in the autumn. The DfE has appointed a new commissioner, former Cafcass boss Anthony Douglas, to oversee progress.
Persistent poor performance
Dwyer’s review for the DfE sought a “broad cross-section of views” from across north-east Lincolnshire, including interviews with senior management, politicians, Ofsted and union officials, and focus groups with staff.
He noted Ofsted’s harsh judgment on the state of its childcare services was “an almost cumulative judgment” based on continued underperformance and the council’s failure to act on recommendations from previous reports.
Inspectors were also “rightly concerned” about the gap between managers’ more positive self-assessment and the reality on the ground.
While Dwyer found positive results related to those in senior positions, Dwyer said the council’s small size hampered its ability to hire experienced directors and, as a result, improve services.
Employees were quoted as saying they were “constantly told” that they were on a path of improvement without that process being adequately defined, and that leaders were “out of touch” and prone to micromanaging issues rather than theirs address the root causes.
Overall, the management system was deemed too complicated, possibly leading to ‘fragmentation’. Dwyer was particularly critical of the fact that most social workers are overseen by Assistant Team Managers (ATMs), which not only discourages the most experienced practitioners from direct practice, but also introduces discrepancies and delays because ATMs lack decision-making authority.
Case numbers remain a problem
Dwyer noted case counts were still an issue at the agency, averaging 25 as of January 2022, but some staffers had significantly more work than them due to increased demand across the service.
He said he was “particularly concerned” about a significant level of unassigned cases. Although senior executives were addressing this through the use of agency teams, Dwyer warned “it would further increase the inconsistency of involvement in the lives of children and families.”
The review also found that children’s services within the council lacked “strategic profile” and that there had been “significant weaknesses” in the leadership and oversight of children’s services by council members over a number of years.
An improvement panel set up after Ofsted’s targeted visit in 2019 first found that issues “worked as if the job was done when the strategy was complete, rather than when its implementation and impact became visible,” one interviewee told Dwyer . As a result, it had “early” ended its work in March 2021, with its liaison with the DfE reduced to caseload monitoring and other audit activities.
“Key ingredients” not present
Since Ofsted’s blanket assessment of North East Lincolnshire as ‘inadequate’ – a result which prompted the resignation of Lisa Arthey, then Head of Childcare – North East Lincolnshire had taken a number of positive steps, Dwyer found.
It has moved quickly to address some problem areas, establish a new improvement plan, improve managerial capacity and approve actions to increase funding for children’s services, the review found.
Unlike many councils in similar positions, partnership work in north-east Lincolnshire “doesn’t look completely broken up”, the review added. It also commended the council’s openness to accepting external support from peers, including the “outstanding” North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire councilors and the Local Government Association.
Nonetheless, Dwyer wrote, “It is of great concern that the key ingredients for the implementation of the strategic change agenda are not yet secured.”
“Fair and Accurate” rating
He added, “There are pragmatic leadership arrangements that bring strengths and experience, but are clearly not the arrangements that will be able to guide LA through a program of change of any significant duration.”
The review found that the fact that governance arrangements to oversee improvement work had not yet been put in place was a concern, as arrangements led by elected members lacked sufficient credibility.
In light of this, Dwyer recommended the creation of a new Improvement Board of senior council and partner leaders, as well as external experts, to oversee progress on the agency’s improvement plan. The DfE said this would be led by Douglas as commissioner.
In response to the findings of the review, Council President Philip Jackson said the agency “welcomes the opportunity to work together [peers]to use their experience and support for the betterment of our future”.
He said Dwyer “fairly and accurately identified the improvements made and the challenges we face in addressing our weaknesses.
Jackson added, “His recommendations are accepted and we must continue to look forward and work with other members, officers and partners to ensure the improvement of our ministry for the benefit of our families, young people and communities at large.” That will be done.”