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Agenda item


To provide an overview of the Children’s Services response to Covid-19.


Mrs Diane Booth, Director of Children’s Services presented the report to the Committee highlighting its focus on the Children’s Services response to the pandemic and the social care improvement journey. Ofsted visits had been suspended until autumn, the scheduled commissioner review had been delayed due to the pandemic until December 2020, but an interim corporate stocktake would be undertaken in July 2020, which would inform the final review.


The Board queried reference in the report to an increase in contacts that coincided with the May bank holidays. Mr Robert Arrowsmith, Performance, Systems and Intelligence Manager explained that increase in demand was often seen around bank holidays, however, it had been exacerbated by the Government’s significant announcements regarding pandemic restrictions tending to coincide with bank holiday weekends during the crisis.


Reference was made to the out of time reviews and Members queried to what extent were reviews behind schedule and the plans that were in place to address the backlog. In response, Mr Arrowsmith advised that six weeks worth of ongoing reviews which had been scheduled had been lost due to the pandemic. However, the majority of reviews were being undertaken on time and those that had been delayed were being worked through. Mrs Jeanette Richards, Assistant Director, Children’s Services added that children had been prioritised dependent on need and that additional staff including two HM Inspectors had been working to get reviews back on track. Panels had continued to meet to oversee permanency plans and advise on their appropriateness. Furthermore, Mrs Booth noted the added difficulties caused by virtual meetings and advised that she expected the backlog to be cleared within the next few months.


It was noted that prior to the pandemic, there had been concerns regarding the number of home schooled children and the potential neglect of some children who were being home schooled. The Board queried the impact of the pandemic on those children. Mrs Booth advised that there was a cohort of children and young people who were home schooled well, however, there were concerns regarding some children who were being home schooled full time. She advised that during the pandemic there had been more referrals than ever from people in the community regarding the safety of children. It was important that this positive change was continued after the pandemic. She added that there was a small educated at home team providing support, however, it was up to the parents to engage. It was reported that reducing the long term levels of elective home education was still an aim of the Council.


Members queried the ongoing relationship with Ofsted and their expectations of progress during the pandemic. In response, Mrs Booth advised that fortnightly meetings were held with Ofsted representatives and experienced HM School Inspectors were assisting with work on a variety of topics. She suggested that Ofsted might consider how the Council had used relaxations offered by the emergency Covid legislation and advised that the service had worked hard to maintain as many statutory requirements as possible and therefore not utilise the relaxations, in order to keep children and young people safe. She added that the Council had been fortunate that 75%-78% of staff had been available for face to face contact throughout the pandemic and the remaining staff had been available to carry out virtual meetings in order to maintain relationships through regular contact.


In response to a question, Mrs Booth advised that the co-production journey had improved during the period of the pandemic and that many young people had liked virtual contact. She added that input from children and young people into plans would be sought as and when appropriate and that they had a particular interest in some community venues such as libraries where wifi could be accessed. Mrs Richards highlighted an example whereby young people had recently been engaged with health services in order to articulate their journey with service provision and as a result a working group had been established and Child and Adolescent Support and Help Enhanced Response (CASHER) services had been increased for the weekend of 4 July 2020 to provide additional support to young people as the pandemic restrictions were further relaxed.


The Board noted that not all young people had the means to access virtual meetings and queried how the issue had been addressed. Mrs Booth reported that the Council was in the process of distributing 920 laptops provided by a Government scheme, however, in order to address the gap in the meantime, money had been spent by the Council in order to provide some of the most vulnerable young people with IT equipment such as phones and tablets in order to ensure the workforce could maintain regular contact.


In reference to children and young people on the ‘red list’, Mrs Booth advised that all had had physical visits and more frequently than usual, with visits not only from social workers but also from the pupil welfare team and schools. There had been a partnership approach in ensuring the young people were safe. She advised that she did not have the data regarding the number of children on Child Protection Plans seen face to face or virtually and would provide that information in writing following the meeting.


The Board referred to the food voucher scheme take up for children eligible for free school meals and queried the success of the programmes in place and the plans for the school summer holidays. In response, Mrs Booth noted that schools had taken different approaches with some using the Government’s voucher scheme and others using the Council’s Catering Services or their own voucher schemes. She advised that Catering Services had provided an invaluable service and delivered a large number of meals. Food had also been available through the Coronakindness hubs. With regards to the school holidays, the Government had advised that all schools could apply for six weeks worth of vouchers to be given to parents funded by the Government. However, some schools had chosen to continue to use the Council’s Catering Services during the summer despite being unable to claim back the funding from the Government.


The pressure on staff was highlighted by the Board and questions were raised regarding the support provided through the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and how the return to the office was being managed. Mrs Booth advised that the EAP had continued through the pandemic and had been promoted to officers early on. In relation to the return to the office, the service had been supported corporately to achieve as much office space as possible to enable as many Children’s Services officers to return as possible with social distancing measures in place. Officers would be split into two teams and be located together. Feedback from staff indicated a return would be welcomed in particular by social workers who were in their first year of practice and had missed out on physical day to day support.


The Board went on to consider the historical gap in Blackpool between primary and secondary education and queried the impact on the transition of the prolonged absence from school. In response, Mrs Booth referred to the recent Government announcement of funding for tutoring and mentoring programmes. Funding would be provided directly to schools and a task and finish group had been established by the local authority to ensure consistent application across schools. In response to further questions, Mrs Booth advised that communication was good between primary and secondary schools and that many schools were employing innovative and creative means of supporting the transition between schools.


With regards to the overall ambition for Children’s Services at Blackpool, Mrs Booth advised that the Council was aiming for an ‘outstanding’ judgement. She considered that the current outcome for the Council would be ‘requires improvement’ however progress could still be made prior to Ofsted carrying out their next inspection.


Members queried the financial implications of the pandemic on Children’s Services and Mrs Booth advised that there was an anticipated pressure of £2.8 million on the budget. The majority of the additional costs had been due to the delay in children exiting care due to the reduced number of cases being heard in court and the increased costs of children in specialist placements and transport costs of children attending special schools due to social distancing requirements. Innovative solutions were being sought to address potential increased costs such as the offer to pay mileage to parents for providing transport to school through direct payments should it be appropriate.


In conclusion it was noted that there had been no key decisions taken during the period of the pandemic with regard to Children’s Services that required reporting to the Scrutiny Leadership Board and that the improvement journey had continued despite the difficulties posed by Covid-19.

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