This was one of the positives included in a series of reports about children in care presented to county councillors this week – but there are challenges and areas for improvement too.
The first update presented to Thursday’s (June 6) meeting of Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services committee provided a review of the authority’s corporate parenting strategy.
A key achievement has been that the number of children being looked after in the county has reduced over the last year, meaning Northumberland now has the lowest rate in the North East and the pattern of falling numbers goes against both regional and national trends.
The meeting heard other areas where the plan is having a positive impact include the numbers leaving care to return home or be adopted being better than regional and national comparators, the percentage of children who are placed within 20 miles of their home address increasing and the percentage of foster children who are placed with in-house carers also rising.
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Areas for improvement include increasing the numbers of children who are placed in foster care, further developing the timely availability of placements for teenagers with complex needs and developing support services for family and friends carers.
The report also notes: ‘A key message that children and young people tell us is that they have had too many changes of social worker.
‘There has been positive progress in improving workforce stability as part of the wider improvement work in social care, but this remains a priority focus’.
Graham Reiter, the service director for children’s social care, concluded that ‘we have done well, we have progressed well’, but highlighted that there were improvements needed going forward.
The committee also received the annual report of the Virtual School Headteacher (VSH) for 2017-18, which has been published now as it has to wait for national figures to be released for comparison.
Looked-after children are taught in different schools across the county, but it is a statutory requirement for all local authorities to have a VSH to champion the educational outcomes of these youngsters.
Northumberland’s VSH Jane Walker told members that there are two provisos with her report: “We don’t teach the children and all the numbers of the children in the year groups are very small, so they are not statistically viable.”
Nonetheless, it revealed that ‘achievement for pupils at Key Stage 1 was outstanding and trends in achievement for pupils of most ages have been steadily improving since 2016’. However, at Key Stage 2, achievement in 2017-18 dipped below regional and national averages.
There continue to have been no permanent exclusions of looked-after children since 2008, but fixed term exclusions continued to rise in 2017-18 – although the numbers appear to be lower this academic year.
School placement stability is very good in Northumberland and much better than elsewhere in England, however, the number of looked-after children classed as persistent absentees (under 90% attendance) is ‘too high’.
Finally, councillors heard an update on the actions to be taken following a peer review of the care leavers service in September last year.
These include reducing the number of transitions between teams for teenagers, recruiting a mental-health practitioner for the service and creating opportunities to support care leavers into employment and education within the county council itself.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service