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Verdict on Ofsted Children’s Services Visit Kept Under Wraps Until After Election

Published on: 23 Apr, 2021
Updated on: 23 Apr, 2021

Cllr Mary Lewis, the retiring SCC cabinet member for Children, Young People and Families. Photo: Surrey County Council.

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

The verdict on Ofsted’s latest visit to Surrey’s children’s services will not be disclosed until after the county council election. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills say it is normal practice to delay publication until after an election so as not to influence the result.

Surrey council has a troubled history in the area of child protection but says it has made progress in keeping children safe.

The service was rated “inadequate” in a damning inspection report in 2018, a repeat of its 2014 grading, and the council risked having children’s services removed from its control.

But in 2019 the commissioner for Surrey’s Children’s Services acknowledged a “palpable change in the attitude and approach by the council”.

Trevor Doughty said: “an alternative delivery model no longer needs to be a consideration” and “significant progress has been made,” although it was “important to emphasise that this is from a starting point of seriously failing services” and he considered it “too early to make a secure judgement about whether the steps that have and are being taken will bring about sustainable improvement”.

He recommended the council was given a further 12 months to prove itself.

Rachael Wardell, executive director of children, families and lifelong learning at Surrey County Council. Photo SCC.

Then in June 2020, executive director of children, families and lifelong learning Dave Hill – who had been appointed as a leader in the sector to tackle the crisis – sadly and unexpectedly died.

It was six months before this pivotal role was filled, by Rachael Wardell.

Meanwhile, Ofsted inspections were suspended in March 2020 during the pandemic – including a fifth monitoring visit planned for Surrey.

Last month the independent watchdog turned up unannounced for a focused visit, but the Surrey public will have to wait until the week after the election to read what they found.

A council spokesman said he was keeping the outcome confidential at Ofsted’s request.

Cllr Mary Lewis

Councillor Mary Lewis, cabinet member for children, young people and families, said: “Verbal feedback confirmed that we’ve continued to progress since the independent commissioner said we can keep our children’s services.

“They said we reacted quickly and well during lockdown in keeping children safe and continued to see improvement – in spite of Covid and in spite of the fact our director of children’s services died.”

Ofsted is due to publish a letter on May 11, and are expected to return for a full graded inspection towards the end of this year.

Cllr Tim Oliver

At last month’s council meeting, leader Tim Oliver praised the work of outgoing Cllr Lewis, while also highlighting children’s services needed continued focus and scrutiny.

One of the things criticised by Ofsted in 2018 was that 49% of children in Surrey’s care system were forced to live outside of the county, “because there are not enough foster carers in the county”.

In the corporate parenting annual report presented to the council in March 2021, figures given showed very little progress in giving the county’s looked after children the comfort of staying close to home.

The proportion of children placed within Surrey was 51% in 2020 (up from 48% in 2019).

Tina Benjamin, director of corporate parenting, said in the report it was important to also report the proportion of children placed within 20 miles of their home, because “a child placed, for example, two miles into Hampshire could still attend a Surrey school and remain in contact with their support network”.

But this was still just 53% in 2020 (up from 51% in 2019) – compared with 73% nationally.

The council says providing enough homes within the county for children in their care is a priority.

The director said recruitment of foster carers during the pandemic was “challenging”, but the council had nevertheless achieved a net increase and there was a “robust recruitment plan in place”.

At the time of the 2018 inspection, 0.36% of children were being looked after by the authority, and in March 2020 that had risen only slightly to 0.37 per cent (981 children).

But she expected “significant changes” to be highlighted in the 2021 annual report following Covid.

If a local authority decides any child within its area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, it will draw up a child protection plan setting out how to keep them safe – and the number of these plans in Surrey rose for eight consecutive months under the pandemic.

At the end of February this year, 861 children needed the council’s help, compared with 669 at the same time last year.

Fiona Davidson

Fiona Davidson, chair of R4GV reacted: “I wish I could say that I am optimistic that the latest OFSTED report will bring better news for Surrey Children’s Services, but I doubt it. Their record of keeping children safe has been appalling for many years, and the data belies all the words of Conservative councillors that children are a priority.

“Clearly they aren’t, and it’s a real failure of Conservative governance. The appointment of Dave Hill was encouraging, and his death was extremely sad for his family and friends, but also for the children of Surrey. Like so much else at SCC, change is long overdue.”

Cllr Fiona White

And Fiona White, the current Lib Dem County Councillor and candidate for Guildford West division said: “This is eerily reminiscent of 2009 when Surrey’s Conservatives delayed publishing a damning report on the running of the county council until just after the May elections. That report commented that it was misleading to suggest the authority’s failings were confined to its children’s services which had been judged inadequate as long ago as 2008.

“Like then, the Conservatives are demonstrating their contempt for the electorate and their desperation to avoid scrutiny. With less than two weeks to the 2021 county elections, residents deserve to know the quality of the services that their taxes are paying for. To prevent that is unacceptable.”

Sue Hackman

Labour’s campaign manager in Guildford, Sue Hackman, commented: “We look forward to reading the report. After struggling for so long, we are hoping for a very significant improvement and a more dynamic plan for improvement.

“We are also mindful that the pandemic has placed new stresses on families so the need for an excellent service has never been more critical. Labour supports the frontline staff who have given and risked so much for the children in the care during the pandemic.”

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