FAILURES of leadership must be addressed if children’s services in Halton are to recover following a damning Ofsted report, a meeting of councillors has been told.

Government inspectors uncovered a list of failings following a visit last October, with the council being ordered to provide an action plan for turning things around. Th Department for Education (DfE) also installed an advisor to work with the council to drive improvement.

On its visit, Ofsted had identified ‘significant weaknesses’ in social work practice and issues with management oversight and supervision that ‘failed to safeguard and promote children’s welfare’. The DfE later issued Halton with a formal improvement notice, with the council being warned the government could directly intervene if problems are not addressed.

At a meeting of Halton Councl's Children Young People and Families Policy and Performance Board last night (Monday), councillors received a briefing on the progress of steps taken so far.

Liz Davenport, the council’s Divisional Manager for Children in Care and Care Leavers, told the meeting work was ongoing to listen to the concerns of staff, try and reduce the burden of admin on social workers as well as review pay and conditions - with Halton’s pay offer still being below many other local councils. She told councillors a new supervision policy was being  introduced this month , with a new e-learning package also in development.

She said some of the management structures in the department are ‘not fit’ to drive forward the changes required, with plans to recruit a new operational director underway and a new senior management structure being proposed.

But board member Cllr John Abbott, who himself had worked as a social worker since the 90s, said: “Can I ask that in response to the Ofsted failure we don’t over emphasise micromanaging social workers and neglect the failure of leadership that was very clearly identified?

"We have some very good social workers but if they’re not led and supported, then it won’t work.”

He said the fact more than half of some social work teams were made up of temp agency staff was ‘massively concerning’. For example, the Runcorn Children in Need team has 28 staff, 18 of whom are agency. While the Widnes team had 20 staff, with 11 being agency. Ms Davenport admitted there was a ‘churn’ of agency workers with some choosing to leave and others not being up to standard, but she said that remaining an agency worker rather than taking a full time post was often a ‘lifestyle choice’.

Cllr Abbott added: “The key thing about being a social worker is to feel safe. If something goes wrong do I get a fair deal and encouragement and support from the organisation? Am I supervised? Am I supported? Am I encouraged?

"If you haven’t got that, people will avoid working there.”