CHILDREN’S services in St Helens has undergone a “huge” transformation in the past six months, councillors have been told – though concerns remain over the pace of change.

In August, Ofsted carried out a virtual two-day monitoring visit of children’s services in St Helens.

It was the first monitoring visit since the local authority was judged inadequate in September 2019, after Ofsted suspended its usual activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This week, St Helens Borough Council’s children and young people services (CYPS) scrutiny committee were given an update on Ofsted’s findings.

Jim Leivers, interim director for children’s services, said council had pushed Ofsted to continue its monitoring arrangements during the lockdown period.

He said the council published the monitoring visit report as they thought it was important people were made aware of the findings.

The report highlighted a number of areas where children’s services have improved, though it also noted the pace of this improvement is not “rapid enough”.

The report said: “Increased oversight, scrutiny of social work practice and review of children’s circumstances by managers are starting to improve the quality of social work practice with children and their families.

“However, the pace of this improvement is not rapid enough across the service.”

Cllr Trisha Long, chairman of the CYPS scrutiny committee, said it was “encouraging” to see the hard work that has gone into improving children’s services is starting to pay off.

However, the Labour councillor sought assurances that the pace of progress would be addressed.

“After the pandemic this is arguably the most important issue for the council,” Cllr Long said.

“Every week that our services are not good means that the lives of some of our vulnerable children are poorer.”

Mr Leivers said one of the biggest issues has been around the recruitment and retainment of its workforce.

He said over the last six to nine months St Helens Borough Council has had “considerable success” in attracting permanent social workers to work in St Helens, more so than any other local authority in the North of England.

Mr Leivers said: “So we’ve been highly successful in attracting and also keeping social workers to stay in St Helens.

“That makes a big difference in terms of the stability of care that you can offer children and young people, in terms of the way in which the social worker is engaged with that.”

Mr Leivers, who joined the council in March, said the workforce is now more stable and is bigger, which has resulted in reduced caseloads.

Social workers now have a caseload of around 17-19, he said, which is a “considerable improvement” to 12-18 months ago.

Mr Leivers said there has also been a “significant and substantive difference” with partner organisations, particularly with schools.

Simon Manseri, principal social worker children’s services, was brought into the authority to lead on the improvements in social work practice.

Mr Manseri told councillors that he wanted to make “root and branch” changes and not just have a “plaster effect”.

He said the authority has continued to make improvements since Ofsted’s monitoring visit, but acknowledged there is still a lot of work to do.

Mr Leivers said the department accepts Ofsted’s comments about the pace of improvement, but pointed out that the council started from a very low base.

He said the children's services have moved to a “very different place” than when it was judged inadequate in 2019.

Mr Leivers said: “I think we’ve made a real difference in terms of our investment. I think the challenge is right about upping the pace.

“I think we are, to a degree, vulnerable. I’s a volatile area. It’s probably the most volatile area in local Government.

“But I think looking at it back over the six months I’ve been here, politicly, organisationally, and professionally there’s been a huge change in the sea state of children’s services.”