New trust could be set up to take over West Sussex children’s services

Children's services in West Sussex were rated 'inadequate' by Ofsted back in May
Children's services in West Sussex were rated 'inadequate' by Ofsted back in May

A leaked report has recommended that delivery of West Sussex children’s services could be run by a trust rather than the county council.

The report, by Department for Education commissioner and Hampshire County Council chief executive John Coughlan, was shared with the council last week and leaked to the BBC.

In it, Mr Coughlan said a children’s trust might take over the running of the services in time and called for a ‘deep, wide and radical external review of the leadership, governance and culture’ at County Hall.

Ofsted rated the services inadequate in May and Mr Coughlan was appointed to oversee the improvements which should have followed.

In September, members of the children and young people’s services select committee were given an update on the progress of the new Children First Improvement Plan.

They greeted the report with an air of cautious optimism, with chairman Paul High stating: “It looks like we’re heading in the right direction.”

The leaked report suggested otherwise.

It said there had been ‘little genuine acceptance of Ofsted’s findings’, adding that, while the majority of people accepted there were failings, they blamed the problems on other parts of the service rather than their own, which acted as a ‘barrier to sustainable improvement’.

Mr Coughlan reported ‘significant confusion’ and a ‘lack of clarity’ when it came to social work, and said there had been a ‘sytematic failure to achieve basic compliance’.

He did report a number of strengths, including the appointment of Paul Marshall as cabinet member for children and young people, and John Readman as director of children and family services.

The pair were described as ‘major assets to improvement’.

The report added that there were some ‘very skilled and committed people’ within the council and that the services were ‘financially relatively secure’ following an investment of £5m.

Recommending that children’s services be delivered via an ‘alternative model’, he reported that it was ‘primarily because the corporate conditions are not conducive to support and sustain genuine improvement’.

Mr Coughlan’s work also saw him interview more than 100 staff at County Hall which led to him reporting a ‘bullying culture’ and an apparent ‘casual disrespect for individuals’, adding that people faced ‘organisational ostracism and probable departure’ if they fell out of favour.

When asked about the findings in the leaked report, a council spokesman said: “We’re not in a position to comment.”

Kirsty Lord, the Liberal Democrats’ education and children’s services spokesperson, was not so tight-lipped.

She said: “This is an absolutely damning verdict on senior leaders at West Sussex County Council. There is no place for bullying and disrespect in any organisation.”

She added: “I feel hugely sorry and very angry on behalf of the staff who have suffered from this.

“And the impact this has had on West Sussex children is utterly inexcusable.

“There are a number of people who would be well advised to consider their position today.”

Leader Louise Goldsmith resigned from her role earlier today.

Ms Lord added: “It is a huge relief that it looks like children’s services will be run in a trust while the problems at the very top are sorted out.

“The operational and cultural problems cannot be allowed to slow down the improvements our children desperately need.

“This is a sad day for West Sussex – for the staff who worked for them and the children who have had to rely on them and residents who have trusted them.

“I hope this is finally the start of real change and improvement.”

Labour’s Michael Jones added: “This is a ruling Tory group that has lost all legitimacy to run West Sussex.

“To lose children’s services to an external trust which is now a likely outcome is an utterly devastating blow to this council and its political leadership’s reputation.”

Following Mrs Goldsmith’s resignation, Mr Jones said it should be the first of several in his view, adding: “This failure runs deep.”

Ms Goldsmith will remain as councillor for Chichester West.

A new leader is expected to be elected at the next full council meeting on October 18.