“INADEQUATE” children’s services in South Gloucestershire have been slammed by politicians and unions across the county.
The result follows a four-week Ofsted inspection last November and December of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers.
While adoption services were rated as good, the overall services in South Gloucestershire were rated inadequate.
Experiences and progress of care leavers and children looked after and achieving permanence were both graded as requiring improvement, while children who need help and protection, leadership, management and governance were labelled inadequate.
Labour councillors have hit out against the Conservative-led council, by saying that the grade could have been avoided had opportunities to address failings not been missed because of a “don’t tell, don’t ask” culture.
Cllr Gareth Manson said that the party had proposed a ‘mock’ inspection in 2014, but had been dissuaded from pursuing it due to potentially imminent inspections and high costs.
Cllr Manson said: “Had either of these mock inspections taken place the deficiencies in vital services that Ofsted have now uncovered would have been exposed and dealt with sooner.
This would have resulted in children receiving a service which met their needs and the council would have been better placed to protect them.
“It would have also avoided the stress and strain which Ofsted’s monitoring regime will now put on staff and the damage done to the reputation of South Gloucestershire Council.
“The amount of information and detail being shared with elected members has clearly been inadequate and my experience is that many councillors have been reluctant to challenge and scrutinise what they are told.
“The relationship between councillors and managers has become too cosy, leading to a ‘don’t tell, don’t ask’ culture.”
A number of strengths were also noted by inspectors, including social workers knowing children well, hearing their views and providing appropriate support to those in need, with swift responses to refer them to the right service.
Peter Murphy, director of children, adults and health at the council, said: “Naturally we are deeply disappointed with the outcome but we are determined to improve services for children and young people.
“What I can assure you of is that we are already taking steps to bring about rapid improvement, which is acknowledged by Ofsted in the report.”
Cllr Jon Hunt, chairman of the children, adults and health committee, added: “I share the disappointment in the outcome and I feel it is only right to apologise to those children and their families who have not received help and support quickly enough.
“The needs of children, especially vulnerable children and their families must always come first.
“I am very clear that our aspiration is to see services for children and young people move to a good rating at the earliest opportunity.”
An urgent review has been carried out on all cases currently or recently allocated to managers within the 0 to 25 service, which supports children and young people in this age bracket with special educational needs and/or a disability, and their families, after being highlighted by Ofsted.
The inspectors also said that a more consistent approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risk of child sexual exploitation is needed, to which the council has responded to say work has already begun to improve on these practices.
Mr Murphy said: “We are reviewing how we identify children who may be at risk of sexual exploitation and strengthening the child protection arrangements we have in place within the council and together with partner organisations.
“And we are also looking at how care plans for looked after children should adapt to better meet a child’s changing needs or circumstances.
“We are also reviewing social work practice across the service and reviewing the training needs of support staff, social workers and managers to ensure they are fully equipped with the right skills to help children to the best of their ability.”
Dissatisfied with the response, Andrew Went, South Gloucestershire branch secretary for union group UNISON, called for an inquiry into the decline in services, highlighted poor performance among senior management and political leadership.
“Questions need to be asked up to the very top levels about why improvements needed from previous inspections were not made.
“Senior managers and politicians must take responsibility for their decisions which have led to the “inadequate” rating. The report highlighted that management and political leaders have not understood or prioritised this crucial function so that even after two years of focus this service is still inadequate.”