‘Significant improvement’ for Surrey’s children’s services

CHILDREN’S services in Surrey are ‘performing well’ just two years after being rated as inadequate by Ofsted.

According to a new report by the watchdog, all the county’s children’s services have seen significant improvement since the damning Joint Area Review in 2008.

An improvement notice was imposed after that review found safeguarding, disabled children’s services and a capacity to improve to be inadequate.

But the recent report listed “strong leadership and management”, in line with Children’s Minister Tim Loughton lifting the improvement notice on the council.

Councillor Peter Martin, cabinet member for children and learning, said he believed the transformation had been enormous.

“There’s been a steady increase, that’s good news. The most important aspect is the staff and the outcome for the children.

“Social services said we have had a complete turnaround where we have transformed the service. It’s reflected in our waiting lists.”

Children’s services, like most council departments, is facing heavy cuts to funding as the coalition government tackles the national deficit, and there are strong concerns among service users that progress is not being made fast enough.

Surrey County Council is faced with the challenge of reducing its expenditure by 28% over the next four years.

“This is much more difficult to achieve than cutbacks in a large company,” Cllr Martin said.

“We have a statutory commitment to local people and you can’t just get rid of things like you do in business.

“We are trying very hard to do less with more, and we will do everything we can to push for further improvements even if the finances are more difficult.”

He added that nearly three-quarters of Surrey’s schools were rated as good or getting better.

“First of all, in our schools and colleges we’ve seen continued solid improvement year-on-year.

“The benchmark of five A*-C grades including English and Maths went up to 62%, an improvement of three or four points that has continued a trend.”

Deputy branch secretary of Surrey County Unison, Jane Armitage, said they were pleased that children’s service workers were getting recognition for their commitment.

But she added: “Unison is still concerned that the government cuts being forced on the council are causing stress and increased strain on already overstretched systems.

“Already less experienced and qualified staff are having to hold cases, which is not good practice.”

Cllr Martin said that children’s services received thousands of calls every month from concerned guardians, teachers and doctors.

“We have to go in and take decisions on those children and that aspect is much improved,” he said.

“There are nearly 800 looked-after children in foster care and in homes, and there is now an improved position for them.”

He said that there were areas of Surrey that were often overlooked as a result of the region’s perceived affluence.

“Most vulnerable groups are those in deprived areas where parents are perhaps involved in some sort of domestic abuse.

“It requires some sensitive handling  by our staff, who do a really good job.”

The Ofsted review highlighted key areas of improvement within children’s services. Since the previous report, fewer people broke the law for the first time and fewer were given prison sentences.

Not as many women aged under 18 were becoming pregnant, more teenage mothers were in education, training or work and fewer five-year-olds were obese than in previous years.

Surrey’s success in keeping young people safe was also noted, with fewer children being admitted to hospital because of accidental or deliberate injury.