Turning West Sussex children’s services around ‘is going to take some time’

John Readman, the new director of children & family services who has joined the county council on an interim basis
John Readman, the new director of children & family services who has joined the county council on an interim basis

Councillors charged with scrutinising children’s services in West Sussex have questioned the level of information provided to them.

The service was rated inadequate by Ofsted last week and the council will now work with a commissioner from the Department for Education in an effort to bring things up to scratch.

The council’s progress will be closely monitored and it could lose control of its children’s services if the Government is not happy with its improvement plans.

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Scrutiny came in for criticism from the inspectors, who described the process as not ‘sufficiently rigorous’.

But at a meeting of the children & young people’s services select committee on Wednesday, Sujan Wickremaratchi (Con, Haywards Heath Town) said members could only ‘go by what we’re shown’.

Mr Wickremaratchi said: “Over the last few years I’ve been in this committee we’ve been shown all these fancy graphs, charts, and we believe that everything is fine when obviously it’s not.

“That is the grave concern I have. How are we going forward with robust scrutiny of these charts being shown to us when we assume services are fine?”

Leader Louise Goldsmith recognised that it was easy to ‘drown’ in data and added: “We want to hear the warts because we won’t sort them out until we hear about them. We only hear the nice things.”

Vice-chairman Paul High added that he and chairman Michael Cloake had also informed officers that there were times people could not read some of the slides presented to the committee.

Members were determined to see children services improve and made a number of suggestions.

One was to ensure that social workers, the children and families could actually tell the committee what was working and what wasn’t, giving a ‘true picture of how our services are progressing’.

There were strong words from Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill) who called on some of the committee to get more involved.

Ms Lord said that, during her two years on the committee, there were some members who had never spoken up and others who rarely did.

She added: “My question to everyone around the table today is: what is the point of you being on a scrutiny committee if you’re going to stay silent, if you’re not going to ask questions?”

There were also concerns about a lack of staffing stability from the top down – which Ms Lord called ‘significant and ongoing churn’.

John Readman, the new director of children & family services, is only in the post on an interim basis, having replaced a previous interim director.

He is the services’ third director since January.

Mr Readman told the committee it would take money, nerve and time to sort out the problems raised by Ofsted.

Sharing his similar experience of improving services at Lancashire County Council, he said: “You take a whole system and a whole council approach so that everybody has got that kind of commitment to supporting children’s services.

“You back it with investment – I’m afraid it does cost to come out of intervention – and an expression I have used quite a bit already in the first four weeks is you hold your nerve.

“You recognise that it’s going to take some time.”

The committee was told that seven core themes for improvement had been decided – effective leadership, work force, planning & development, learning & development, design of the service, and partnerships, process and compliance.