Children's services praised for efforts during pandemic

Pretty stylish schoolgirl studying homework math during her online lesson at home, social distance d

Ofsted has given positive feedback to Devon County Council - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

You may have seen a story recently about local councils cutting services and raiding their reserves to balance their budgets.

BBC researchers analysed 170 top tier councils like Devon to come up with their findings.

In fact one of their researchers came back to my Head of News to query the statistics we had provided.

We told him that far from cutting services and sacking staff, we were planning to spend an additional £21.6 million this financial year on adult care and health with £11.3 million more for children’s services.

The research was done several weeks ago but two reports in recent days have confirmed Devon’s financial stability and praised the work we did helping vulnerable children and families throughout the pandemic.

Devon’s Cabinet heard last week that our financial outturn for 2020/21 showed an underspend of £35,000 on a revenue budget of just over £541 million.

In my 12 years as leader we have never once ended a financial year overspent and for that I am very grateful to all our staff, particularly the Treasury team.

But along with that happy news came a warning from the County Treasurer that we are facing big financial challenges in the years ahead.

That’s not just because of the continuing effects of the pandemic but also because of growing pressures in social care, a big deficit in Devon's special education budget as well as the Government’s upcoming spending review.

None of those issues are unique to Devon but we are undoubtedly heading for some financial turbulence ahead both here and nationally.

That made the second report – published last week – worth reading.

In March 2020 our children’s services were inspected by Ofsted who said that we needed to make a number of improvements. We were beginning that task when the pandemic struck.

However, this May Ofsted conducted a virtual inspection of children's social care in Devon and their headline finding was that we have provided a well-coordinated and effective response to the challenges of Covid.

In Devon particularly, with 371 schools spread across a vast geographical area, it had not been easy to keep children, especially the most vulnerable, in sight and safe, they said.

We had also received significantly more referrals and cases were more complex.

So we were pleased they concluded: "The local authority and its partners have risen to the challenge, delivering a well-coordinated and effective response.”

Now we are not going to let that finding obscure the fact that we have a lot of work to do to ensure we provide an excellent service to the most vulnerable children and families in Devon.

As the inspectors also remarked, we are at the beginning of that journey.

But our new Chief Officer of Children's Services, Melissa Caslake, and my new Cabinet member, Andrew Leadbetter, have clear plans for improvements over the coming months and this latest report proves we're moving in the right direction.

So I want to pay tribute to our frontline social workers who did so much to keep children in Devon safe in a year when we have seen cases of domestic abuse and mental health problems rise inexorably.

One of the issues we need to tackle is workforce stability against a background of a shortage of social workers nationally.

We have already improved the pay and conditions of our social workers but we intend to make further improvements to our recruitment and retention of staff.

We have a lot of work to do but our staff can feel proud their efforts over this past year have been recognised. We will continue to build on that.