Children’s services warning for Devon County Council

By Ollie Heptinstall   |   Local Democracy Reporter   |
Thursday 4th August 2022 6:00 am
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Cllr John Hart, chair of Team Devon and leader of Devon County Council (Image: Daniel Clark) (Daniel Clark )

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The government will “run out of patience” with Devon County Council if its failing children’s services don’t improve over the next year.

Leader John Hart’s admission comes after a damning report last month threatened government intervention into the county’s services for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The county council and NHS Devon, who work together to run SEND services, both apologised after the report found no progress has been made in improving four areas of “significant concern” identified in 2018.

A separate report, published last week, also revealed progress remains ‘slow’ in improving the council’s children’s services department, which was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in January 2020.

Cllr Hart, leader of the council since 2009, admits the situation is “damaging” for its reputation and for staff, “who have worked hard in this field.”

He added: “We are not improving; I think that’s what disturbs me. We do not appear to be improving, even though we have put an awful lot of time, effort and money into it. That’s why we’re having a fresh start at it, linked with NHS, because this time the NHS have been targeted in with us.

“I’m very sorry for the children that have been failed by the Devon system. I do think we are reshaping, reorganising, redoing things, and we’ve got to improve the service.”

Cllr Hart conceded the council is “in a position now where we have to really do something to improve in the next six to 12 months or the government will run out of patience with us.

“I think we have the capacity to do it, but I equally think we are going to need to rethink some of the things we are doing. This is the impression I got from the Ofsted report [and] the minister’s comments.”

Speaking at a cabinet meeting last month, Melissa Caslake, the council’s director of children and young people’s futures, said it had “let down the children of Devon over the past four years since that [2018] inspection.”

She acknowledged the problems with SEND provision – including a lack of understanding strategy, poor communication and a need to improve autism support – but said the department’s new leadership has “not had sufficient time … to get on top of those issues, grapple with them and take it forward.”

Opposition leader Councillor Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge) said possible government intervention was a “sad reflection on Devon County Council.”

He acknowledged that the new leadership team, appointed last year,  should be given time, but said the problem was “nothing new.”

“It’s been going on for over 10 years. We failed to address the problems, we’ve allowed drift and I think that’s a terrible state of affairs.”

Labour councillor Rob Hannaford, chair of the council’s children’s scrutiny committee, warned at the cabinet meeting that the service was now “drinking in the last chance saloon, because it feels like the tone of these letters is now constricting more and more, and we can see the way that it’s going.

“It is very serious for county council. I think cross-party, none of us would want to lose control of our children’s services.”

Cllr Hart stressed the authority was “not an outlier, particularly on SEND,” adding: “Up and down the country where there are local authorities with SEND responsibilities, we are all under pressure. The smaller ones are somewhat easier to manage.”

He says a shortage of skilled staff is one of the problems, with the council currently relying on a number of agency workers. To encourage them to stay, it is introducing ‘golden handcuffs’ bonuses to reward loyalty.

Following a meeting with the Department of Education last month, Cllr Hart revealed the council and NHS Devon have now been given time to put together an “improvement package” for ministers to consider.

“We will find out, given time, what the department’s decisions will be,” he said.

In a statement last month, NHS Devon apologised to children, parents and carers who use the SEND service in the county and said it was “committed to working with our partners to do whatever is needed” to improve services.

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