Norfolk County Council: Local spotlight on children's centres

Derren Hayes
Monday, April 29, 2019

East Anglian council has plans to remodel early years services and reduce demand for social care to balance the books.

Norfolk County Council covers 2,000 square miles and faces high costs in delivering services to a dispersed population living in urban, rural and coastal communities. Picture: David Hughes/Adobe Stock
Norfolk County Council covers 2,000 square miles and faces high costs in delivering services to a dispersed population living in urban, rural and coastal communities. Picture: David Hughes/Adobe Stock

It has been a difficult few years for children's services in Norfolk. The department was rated "inadequate" by Ofsted in 2015 and again in 2017, and has had four directors of children's services (DCSs) over the past four years.

In addition, Norfolk was identified in a parliamentary report as being one of the worst areas in the country for social mobility, with young children having poor attainment.

Last autumn, the council also announced plans to close 38 of its 53 children's centres, causing anger among local parents and early years providers.

Despite the challenges, the council's DCS Sara Tough - appointed in October 2017 - is optimistic the corner has been turned. In January 2018, Ofsted rated children's services as "requires improvement" overall, praising senior leaders for "working purposefully to tackle critical weaknesses".

Transformation plan

Meanwhile, the council has pledged to invest an additional £15m up to 2021 in supporting the implementation of transformation plan for children's services.

This investment comes despite the need to make savings of £125m across all services by 2021.

Nearly £5m of the savings will be coming from the changes to the early childhood and family service, the annual budget for which will be cut from £10m to £5.2m. It will shift to a more targeted model of provision delivered through 15 children's centres. Services such as bounce and rhyme, stay and chat sessions, and baby weighing clinics will be delivered year-round from 47 libraries.

The council expects the proportion it spent on frontline delivery to rise from 39 per cent to 60 per cent as costs on buildings, management and administration are reduced.

The changes are partly driven by the high cost of delivering services to a large county that has a dispersed population living in urban, rural and coastal communities. It covers an area of 2,000 square miles and has a population of 860,000, of which 169,000 are children under 18 years old.

The child population is 93 per cent white ethnicity and has low rates of English as an additional language in schools. It is also below the national average for the proportion of children eligible for free school meals.

Rates for looked-after children are around the average for England. However, latest Department for Education data shows rates for social worker turnover, vacancies, caseloads and agency use track above the national averages.

DCS View: Long-term strategy to reduce demand across children's services

By Sara Tough, director of children's services Norfolk

The task we ask of ourselves [regarding the review of children's centres] is: are we making a difference to the under-fives and how can we improve that?

We weren't making the impact we thought was necessary, specifically for our most vulnerable children.

The review was an opportunity to build a children and family system integrated with other provision that achieves better outcomes.

We are going to take the money out of buildings to enable us to reach more children and families.

We had 12 providers of children's centres and would like to reduce that number down. We're in the procurement process at the moment and would rather have one or two providers. We want to get the right provider who will share our ambitions.

The plan is to have 15 bases across the county while teams of practitioners can outreach into rural areas.

The universal part of the provision will be accessible online and through libraries. These are group activities that families really value.

When Sure Start was first designed it was a targeted provision so we think we're staying true to the original principles.

It is the right thing to do and we would have done it anyway - 18 years is a long time and where services and support are needed is different.

We need to stand back and ask are we making the difference we want and spending money in the right way?

In the first few days after I joined, we had an Ofsted inspection. From then we've been building a strategic approach to ensure we're getting the basics right and are doing the right things with the right people.

Having financial and political support has enabled us to do that - the council set aside £15m transformation funding for children's services over three years.

The strategy has five key elements: inclusion, prevention, effective social work, edge of care and managing the care market.

We're starting to tackle these issues. We're piloting different ways of working on the frontline. Our family social work teams incorporate practitioners with experience of mental health or domestic abuse issues; they are working with social workers to provide more rounded interventions. The whole team gets to know the family, so that the case is known to the whole team.

We looked at how we manage work coming through the "front door" and changed the model based on advice from Professor David Thorpe at Lancaster University. We now receive all referrals by phone rather than via email. This enables senior social workers to talk to the referrer and immediately triage a case.

Better quality social work assessments gives more time for direct work, which will hopefully lead to better outcomes for children and families.

The number of agency staff is down to around 12 per cent, and caseloads are now around the national average level.

The number of children coming into care is reducing and the care rate is in the same ball park as before. Children's needs are complex and managing the [provider] market is important. We've been working with Impower to implement Valuing Care to increase the value provided by placements.

In March 2018, there was a 50/50 split between in-house and independent foster care. Now it is a 60/40 split and we're also using less residential care.

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