The Committee will receive an update on the Covid-19 response in connection with Children’s Services and Education.
Mr Mark Shaw, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services
Mrs Anita Cranmer, Cabinet Member for Education
Mr Tony Green, Cabinet Member for Youth Provision
Mr Tolis Vouyioukas, Corporate Director, Children’s Services
Mr Richard Nash, Service Director – Children’s Social Care
Mr Simon James, Service Director - Education
Covid-19 Update report
The Chairman explained that a Covid-19 update would be provided at this meeting; however, there would be further opportunities to scrutinise the Council’s response to the pandemic. On behalf of the whole committee, the Chairman extended his thanks to all staff in Children’s Services and Education who had been working extremely hard on the front line during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Mark Shaw, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services stated it had been an extremely challenging time for the Service as the officers had to be set up to work from home, in a very short space of time, to enable continued contact with vulnerable children via Face time, texting and WhatsApp; these methods had proven to be an efficient, effective and accepted means of communication for the children. The Service had kept the Department for Education (DfE) and OFSTED informed throughout. The planned OFSTED monitoring visit in May 2020 would be rearranged for when it was safe to do so.
Mr Shaw commended the whole team, in both education and children’s social care; he particularly thanked the staff who had been working in the schools which had remained open during the pandemic and the officers who had undertaken home visits under extreme circumstances. Mr Shaw was confident that the senior management team knew what needed to be improved upon and that there was an improvement plan in place. Regular contact had been made with approximately 80% of the known vulnerable children but the team were aware that the real challenge would be the children who were not known to the service and it was anticipated that there could be a rise in the number of referrals when more children returned to school. In addition, recruitment of social work staff continued to be a priority.
Mr Tolis Vouyioukas, Corporate Director, Children’s Services, referred to the detailed report provided in the agenda pack and emphasised that following the lockdown announcement; immediate action was taken to ensure all teams were able to work remotely. Mr Vouyioukas praised the schools which had accommodated the children of key workers and vulnerable children. The Service had achieved contact with over 96% of cases (paragraph 1.6) and Mr Vouyioukas stressed the importance of ensuring the momentum of improvement continued. A recent staff survey had shown that over 88% of staff in Children’s Services were happy and felt supported. The senior management team had been in touch with DfE at least three times a week to understand the guidance and expectations. Regular meetings with the chairs of school partnerships had also taken place. It was anticipated that 80% of primary schools would be open by week commencing 8 June 2020, in accordance with public health guidance.
The following key points were raised by the Select Committee members during discussion:
- A member commented that the Children’s Centre programme had not been implemented due to the pandemic; however, Mr Vouyioukas clarified that the Family Support Service (para 1.9 of the report), which included Early Help, actually went live in September 2019 and he was confident that families had been receiving support throughout the crisis, albeit in different ways.
- In connection with schools reopening, Mr Vouyioukas stated he was very pleased with the response from schools and the chairs of the partnerships. The guidance from the DfE was not mandatory; the Service had worked closely with schools to provide advice and it had been important to work together to agree when the schools should re-open.
- Paragraph 1.12, SEND Service stated that on 1 May 2020 the Section 42 duty had been eased. The absolute duty to deliver the provisions identified was modified by the regulations and now ‘reasonable endeavours’ must be used to deliver as much of the identified provision within Early Help Care Plans (EHCPs) as possible. In response to being asked how the Service had responded to the changes; Mr Vouyioukas advised that he had seen an improvement in the SEND Service and that he held regular meetings to ensure the advice was applied.
- It was highlighted that paragraph 1.15 (EHCPs) stated that “No statutory process has been altered or changed; it has just been delivered in a different way.” Mr Vouyioukas explained that as it was not possible to hold face to face contact, the team had used alternative ways of communicating which had resulted in more productive meetings with some young people; the guidance had been complied with and learning would be taken from the experience.
- Mr Richard Nash, Service Director for Children’s Social Care, advised that approximately 20 face to face visits per week for high risk cases had been carried out at the start of the pandemic, but had recently increased and over 100 visits had been carried out in the week commencing 25 May 2020. Mr Nash was unsure how many visits would normally be undertaken each month but would provide the information after the meeting.
ACTION: Mr Nash
- Schools had supported the request for personal protective equipment (PPE) and had provided PPE to Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Schools had also been supplied with PPE equipment.
- Mr Vouyioukas did not know how many children had caught the virus whilst attending school since lockdown but would ask the Public Health team to provide the data.
ACTION: Mr Vouyioukas
- It was noted that Mr Shaw had referred to a potential increase in referrals into the Children’s Services when normal school attendance resumed and he emphasised the Council’s commitment to supporting vulnerable children. In response to being asked about additional resources in schools, Mr Shaw stated that it would be a challenging time, the number and severity of cases would be closely monitored and quick action would be taken where necessary to ensure support for children needing help. Anita Cranmer, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, reported that there had been improved collaborative working between schools during the pandemic. In order to provide further support, the Service had also organised dedicated School Support Officers. Excellent communication had been maintained and a website had been established to provide quick access to help.
- Mr Vouyioukas added that Covid-19 had created a difficult financial environment as it was difficult to predict what additional activity would be needed in the future to deal with the recovery from the pandemic. The Service would continue to work in partnership with schools, the voluntary sector and health colleagues.
- Paragraph 1.6 stated that just over 96% of children have had contact with a social worker every four weeks during the COVID-19 period with 79% of those agreeing to virtual video contacts; however, 21% had not agreed to virtual contact and a member asked what had been put in place for these families. Mr Nash advised that as soon as the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent, the Service put plans in place to ensure continuity of protecting vulnerable children. Daily meetings allowed prioritisation of cases and a decision was made as to whether a home visit should be undertaken. The Service knew which families (4%) had not had contact and had evaluated their safety during the pandemic. 79% had agreed to virtual contact and this figure was comparable to other authorities. Some families, who did not have remote access, had been provided with improved mobile devices and internet connection.
- Paragraph 1.2 stated that changes were made to the electronic recording system so that work impacted by COVID-19 could be clearly recorded and accounted for. The system was revised to be able to record a virtual visit and the number of attempts to contact people to manage the current situation.
- The OFSTED improvement plan was constantly updated and presented to the Service’s improvement partner at regular intervals; it was on the agenda for the Cabinet meeting in July 2020 and Mr Vouyioukas confirmed he would discuss presenting the plan to the Select Committee before the next meeting in September 2020 with Mrs Sutherland.
ACTION: Mr Vouyioukas/Mrs Sutherland
- A member expressed concern that due to the changes to Section 42 in the SEND Service that some children may be missed. However, Mrs Cranmer reassured the committee that children were still having their plans administered and that there had been increased efficiency in the turnover of EHCP plans due to a higher number of staff and the appointment of a new Chief Educational Psychologist. Mr Vouyioukas added that in May 2020, 78% of EHCP plans were being processed within the 20 week timescale, which was a significant improvement. It was agreed that Mr Simon James, Service Director, Education, would circulate a briefing containing the SEND performance data.
ACTION: Mr James
- Staff had been well supported during lockdown and the Service was confident that improved levels of performance would be maintained.
The Chairman thanked all the presenters for this update.