Fallout continues following inadequate rating from Ofsted for Children's Services
The verdict was delivered following inspection visits in December, 2022, and February, 2023, with inspectors concluding there had been a decline in the quality of services since the council’s last full inspection in 2017.
The Ofsted rating was confirmed publicly in May, 2023, with South Tyneside Council chiefs stressing they had “moved quickly” to address the issues raised and that the council was “well on the way with [its] journey of improvement”.
At the most recent meeting of full council on October 19, 2023, opposition councillors brought children’s services onto the agenda again in the form of two motions.
This included a bid for opposition representation on the council’s Corporate Parenting Committee, which currently meets in private with representation from majority Labour Group councillors only.
Another motion called for borough bosses to agree to a full council debate on the Ofsted inadequate rating at the end of November, 2023.
Several opposition councillors said there had been a lack of political accountability for the Ofsted rating, and that an understanding was needed of “what went wrong”.
It was also noted that the departure of senior council officers following the Ofsted ruling needed to be explained to all South Tyneside councillors and the public.
Councillor Adam Ellison, the Labour cabinet member responsible for children’s services, suggested changes to the Corporate Parenting Committee could not be made “in-year” and that there were no vacancies.
However, councillors heard the committee and its governance was being looked at as part of a wider review, which would feed back ahead of annual council where committee places are normally agreed.
Cllr Ellison, who chairs the Corporate Parenting Committee, said: “It’s my recommendation that we wait for the external feedback before jumping, we want to get this right for our children and young people.
“I’m confident I will have formal feedback in the new year ahead of any meeting of annual council.
“Therefore it will be a much more appropriate time for the Constitution Committee to consider such an important matter at a time when fuller recommendations and thinking can be taken into account”.
Opposition councillors, who make up around a third of the council’s 54 seats, said the move would improve scrutiny and oversight.
However, the motion for opposition representation on the Corporate Parenting Committee this year failed to win support across the council chamber, with the issue set to be looked at in 2024.
Cllr Ellison said a report to full council on children’s services was already being planned subject to external feedback, including an external review and a monitoring visit from Ofsted.
The cabinet member proposed a report returning to full council for debate in January, 2023, which won support from councillors after being put to the vote.
However, the town hall meeting saw some criticism levelled at Cllr Ellison, who was first appointed to his cabinet portfolio in May, 2021.
Independent councillor John Robertson said the recent Ofsted report confirmed the Labour councillor was “not fit for purpose” as a lead member for children’s services.
Cllr Robertson added the opposition and members of the public in South Tyneside were being “treated like mushrooms and kept in the dark” over the children’s services report “scandal”.
Independent councillor David Kennedy added: “We will never completely move forward from this inadequate rating from Ofsted until the lead member for children’s services stands up and reports to full council.
“Not just on how he is working on Ofsted’s recommendations but stands up and follows our proud council values by being open and honest with what is wrong in children’s services, and specifically who is responsible”.
Independent councillor Glenn Thompson said the issue was about how the council reacts and follows Ofsted recommendations and how assurances are given to the government.
Cllr Thompson added: “Everything I have visibility of at this time is reassuring in that we are meeting these obligations.
“Secondly though and importantly is accountability, as a council we should all understand what went wrong, learn from it and install measures to prevent it happening again”.
Councillor David Francis, leader of the council’s Green Group, said that a report to full council was important, as the only meeting that is recorded and posted on the council’s YouTube page for “posterity”.
Cllr Francis continued: “The work to develop and improve children’s services is going to be an ongoing thing that has no end date and will never be finished so in some respects you could argue against deferring.
“At any point in time, you can give an update on the current picture, what we have learned and what’s been done since.
“But given we’re only talking about one meeting further down the line I’m happy with that and welcome the chance to take part in that debate”.
Cllr Ellison said he “took exception” to some comments from Cllr Robertson and stressed a report on the issue would return to full council on January 18, 2024.
This aims to provide the council with a “full and rounded update” including feedback from an Ofsted monitoring visit, the Department for Education and other partners.
Cllr Ellison added: “By agreeing to a report in January we can provide an overview of where we were when the [Ofsted] report was published, what we have done since and what external partners are saying about the actions that have already been taken”.
Councillor Ian Forster, the council’s sole Conservative member, said that information on the council’s improvement actions were “only half the story”.
Cllr Forster added: “We can’t have a council when serious mistakes have been made and consequences could be serious where the same people if they had made mistakes […] can be allowed to continue doing the role they did.
“I accept Cllr Ellison and other councillors and members are working extremely hard to put this right.
“But I need to emphasise we also need to look at what went wrong and need to address that issue as well when the report comes back in January”.
The council was rated “inadequate” for overall effectiveness and also in the categories of “the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers” and “impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families”.
Elsewhere it was rated “requires improvement” in terms of the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection.
Ofsted previously made seven recommendations for improvement, all of which have seen “significant progress” to date, and after the inspection “improving management practice” was found.
Work has included the scrutiny of management being tightened to assure families decision-making is robust, along with improved recording and supervision practices.
Additional placements in registered children’s homes have also been found and plans are in place for two new children’s homes and an assessment centre in the borough.
An improvement board with partners has been established and a plan, with feedback from Ofsted, has been drawn up to address the areas of concern.
Councillors were previously told Ofsted quarterly monitoring visits would start in November, 2023, with another full inspection in “about 12 months”.