Commissioner's praise for 'unrecognisable' children's services in Torbay

Nancy Meehan, director of children's services for Torbay Council

Nancy Meehan, director of children's services for Torbay Council - Credit: Torbay Council

Government overview of children’s services in Torbay is to be stepped down following major improvements, councillors heard.

The department was judged inadequate for a second time in 2018 following an inspection.

A Government-appointed commissioner who has been overseeing improvements said on Monday that services had struggled for a decade but were now 'unrecognisable' compared to earlier.

Commissioner Nigel Richardson praised the council’s new management team and political leadership for the changes.

He announced that oversight of improvements would be stepped down from April because of the progress.

The commissioner, who has been chair of the children’s services improvement board, told councillors on Monday he would be replaced by an improvement adviser, in a move approved by the Secretary of State.

Mr Richardson said the council had a programme of sustainable improvements in place, although the pandemic had been a setback and there were still challenges with recruitment and retention of staff.

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“The right ingredients are now in place, it’s just the relentless focus on making that happen that will continue to drive Torbay forward,” he told Torbay Council’s children and young people’s overview and scrutiny board.

Mr Richardson said there was now a clear focus on outcomes for children, asking the question 'Is anyone any better off?' as well as assessing the quantity and quality of services.

He praised the clear vision of the council’s political leadership, a partnership of Liberal Democrats and Independents which took control after local elections in May 2019.

He also praised the work of director of children’s services Nancy Meehan, who joined Torbay Council as deputy director in October 2019.  She was confirmed as director in February 2020 and led the improvement plan which has been key to the council’s progress.

Mr Richardson also praised the council’s interim chief executive Anne-Marie Bond who was appointed in July 2020. He said she had refreshed the council’s commitment to the improvement process.

He said leadership was a 'key strength' and there was a sense of enthusiasm and commitment across partners in the area.

Mr Richardson added: “There is now a very clear vision, strategy and plan for improved services across Torbay.”

The council’s children’s services were given a rating of inadequate for a second time in 2018 after an inspection visit by the Office for Standards in Education, a Government agency which regulates the sector.

Later inspection visits found signs of improvement, but the commissioner’s comments show a big vote of confidence in the changes that are now being put in place.

Services were redesigned in July 2020 in line with the improvement plan, following the approval of extra investment under the council’s new leadership.

Councillors have been told that the department has underspent by £4million of its £47million budget this year because of the success of the changes, which have seen costs reduced as well as better outcomes for children.

One example councillors heard about was an improved strategy to respond to issues raised by children going missing, which Mr Richardson said was an area where Torbay had started from a low base but had now caught up.

Councillors hear a child exploitation manager had been appointed and a meeting of partners now took place fortnightly to investigate cases and consider what action was needed.

Ms Meehan told councillors a number of children had returned to Torbay from residential care into family-type settings, which provided better outcomes in most cases.

Lower caseloads meant social workers were able to carry out prevention work including family-led solutions to prevent a crisis occurring.

Care-leaver Charlie Hine, who is a member of the committee, stressed how important it was to provide long-term placements and to reduce the number of different social workers in contact with a child.

She said the measures would provide more certainty and reduce the number of times children had to repeat their stories, which would help prevent them losing confidence in the system.

A report from Ms Meehan outlined progress with the improvement programme including new schemes:

  • a Learning Academy which offers a three-year programme for newly qualified social workers and advanced and skills-based courses for the wider workforce. That is expected to make a major contribution to recruitment and retention of staff
  • an edge of care service to support vulnerable young people in their communities rather than bringing children into care
  • a dedicated exploitation team to work with children highly vulnerable to sexual and criminal exploitation.

The director’s report to the committee said: “Our improvement planning and the service changes that have been introduced have been welcomed and, in many cases, actively supported by partners, council leaders, politicians, our workforce and ultimately by our children, young people and families who are central to all that we do.”

In a separate item, the board recommended the council approves a pledge to children who are or have been in care, setting out a series of commitments on how the local authority will deal with them.

The board also heard about plans to create a new partnership model between the council and voluntary sector to provide early help to families, aimed at reducing the need for a more serious intervention later.