The Town Hall’s children’s services department has twice been found by Ofsted to require improvement

Cuts within the Town Hall’s children’s services department, which is under pressure to improve following Ofsted criticism, could have a “serious impact”, a trade union has warned.

In a letter, the local Unison branch asks the council why it is planning to save £130k through cuts to safeguarding and learning, “the very team that is vital in planning and preparing for [the Ofsted] inspection”.

The union also lifts the curtain on lingering disharmony behind the scenes, with claims that safeguarding staff have raised concerns for years about “mismanagement of resources” and a “lack of leadership”.

It also relays accusations from staff that the agenda for improving the department was neglected by senior management, whose requests instead kept the team busy with tasks outside of its remit.

The role of the safeguarding and learning team is to promote best practice, improve training and development, and ensure that families and young people receive a high quality service.

Leading councillors insist the proposals are about introducing more specialised roles to help the service improve and better train and develop staff.

Children’s social care was found to require improvement by Ofsted across a range of measures at the end of 2019, despite an action plan put in place following similar criticism from the watchdog the year before.

Inspectors described the practice for at-risk children as “not yet consistently good” and identified a “small number of children liv[ing] in neglectful circumstances for too long”.

In its letter, Unison said: “While the need for change is not disputed, not least on the basis of the council’s poor Ofsted inspection in November 2019, it seems unwise to restructure what has been a key team in terms of service development, quality assurance and inspection-readiness without considering [children and families] in the round and when further, substantial changes to priorities and working methods are inevitable and imminent.

“The economic impact of the pandemic means that all local authorities are likely to have to make significant cost savings in the medium to long term. This will almost certainly need a whole-council approach and the limited cost savings represented by this restructure (despite affecting many of our members and their colleagues) is likely to be insignificant.”

It goes on to say that informing staff they are at risk of a pay cut or even redundancy is inconsistent with the council’s claim to have “recognised the impact the pandemic and the cyber attack have had on our members’ mental health”.

Its members are said to be frustrated that some of them now face being out of a job “in large part as a result of poor decision-making and lacklustre leadership from senior managers”.

Unison also warns that the plans would have a disproportionate impact on Black or mixed heritage staff members, and called for an extension to any planned redundancies until staff have returned to the office, new leadership is in place, and the economic outlook is clearer for the council following the pandemic and the cyber attack.

The Town Hall has defended the changes to the team, saying they are “aimed directly” at following Ofsted’s recommendations.

It says responsibility for complaint investigations will be transferred directly to managers of frontline social workers, which the council argues “will improve the quality of social work”.

Responding to concerns about staff wellbeing, a spokesperson said that individual staff members required to be assessed or interviewed would be spoken to about their needs ahead of time, with care responsibilities or mental health needs to be taken into account.

The council pointed to the fact that the plans affect 14 staff members out of 620 in the children and families service.

It also fired back at Unison’s claims that staff shortages were to blame for the Ofsted criticism, pointing to the inspector’s findings that “most social work units have manageable workloads”, and stating that the review is aimed at improving quality assurance, management oversight and workforce development.

The Town Hall said in 2020 that it hoped to earn a ‘Good’ rating from Ofsted within a year, and an ‘Outstanding’ at the inspection after that, while accepting that these goals would be impacted by the pandemic.

Deput Mayor and cabinet member for children’s services Cllr Anntoinette Bramble said: “In the context of ongoing funding cuts from central government, this means prioritising resources for frontline social work and strengthening oversight so our work better meets the needs of local children and young people.

“The review of the safeguarding and learning team will help to achieve this by introducing more specialised roles that can drive improvement across our children and families service and improve training and development for our staff.”

She added: “These proposals are not a review of frontline social workers, but transfer responsibility for the first stage of complaint investigations from the safeguarding and learning team to social workers’ line managers. This will ensure that families and young people can discuss any concerns with a line manager straight away, who can take immediate steps to rectify the issue.”

EDIT: This article was updated at 14:26 on 22/03/2021 to clarify that Ofsted found in its inspection that most social work units have manageable workloads.

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