It’s nearly three years since Ofsted took on the role of inspecting children’s social care. Molly Garboden looks at how one council has turned their ranking around, and asks Ofsted and providers how to be “outstanding”
Swindon’s safeguarding and looked-after children services recently received one of the highest Ofsted ratings in the country, but the council’s standards have not always been so high. Just under 10 years ago, the council was in intervention following a disastrous inspection.
Giving Community Care exclusive access, it’s clear director of children’s services John Gilbert is pleased with the department’s recent progress: “We’re the seventeenth lowest funded authority in terms of money per pupil,” he says. “We’re very poor and that makes things difficult. Having said that, being forced to live within your means can lead to more careful consideration of everything. Nothing is overlooked because nothing can be wasted.”
Two areas which Ofsted found Swindon excelled in during its December 2009 inspection were safeguarding services, where the council received a “good” ranking, and leadership and management, where it was given an “outstanding” score.
When it comes to leadership achievements Gilbert puts the onus on teamwork. “I’m only as good as the people I’m working with,” he says. “So much of what we do is down to development and relationships.”
However, Pollard says the real strength of their leadership lies in flexibility and understanding. “We absolutely understand that something that happens at a school over there is going to impact on a child in care over here. The leaders of all the agencies work very closely together and move resources around to address our key priorities. We would never say: ‘That budget is only for social care so it can’t be used in education.’
“All the heads of safeguarding know that problems in one area are going to impact on situations elsewhere. I think that flexibility is crucial.”
Deimert says management is highly supportive: “Whenever we’re short-staffed or there are difficulties, I know my manager will be there. She comes and helps out and is part of the team. So that means all the social workers know who the managers are, have worked with them, and that makes management that much more approachable. We are always listening to each other and listening to the social workers.
“There were some difficulties around the integration of the new computer system, but the managers listened to everyone, respected their views and smoothed things out. It’s all about communication.”
For the social workers in the team it is the management structure that has proved most helpful. Rowson says: “We’ve got two assistant team managers who always make the time if you’re anxious about something and are there to give advice.
“Because there are two of them, if one’s not available the chances are the other one will be. If neither team manager is here, Debbie Deimert will always make the time for you. So between the three of them, there’s always someone to listen and support you.
“The fact that supervision is very regular also helps. They always make sure we have time to consider our anxieties and our caseloads. They give us time to focus on our own development, which is extremely important, but often overlooked,” she adds.
John Gilbert attributes the high safeguarding score to the department’s multi-agency approach. “Any local authority which thinks safeguarding is only about social care is going to fall flat on its face,” he says. “Every Ofsted inspector I spoke to said the extent of our integration was impressive.”
One way the council maintains high levels of joined-up working is through so-called leads meetings. The monthly meetings are attended by the head of child protection, an inspector from the police, and the heads of safeguarding for the hospital, for education and for health visitors. The agencies discuss policies and issues that may have come up over the past few weeks, asking each other for solutions, support and advice.
Jean Pollard, director of safeguarding and corporate parenting says the council has also been helped by a longstanding history of cross-agency identification of priorities.
“It’s about the different agencies learning from each other and understanding each other’s roles. We had this fantastic role-playing day with the primary school heads where we asked them to role play as social workers. We provided ‘live’, ‘developing’ cases that they had to manage. Afterwards they said they now understood what we’re doing.”
Debbie Deimert, social work team manager says working out the best way to utilise staff resources has also been important.
“We’ve just started having duty social workers who don’t hold any cases, they only act as consultants and do the initial assessments. The duty social workers work on a rotation, so every social worker has their turn doing that.
“One way we speed up the referral process is to have two unqualified workers we call our advice and information officers. They take all the initial calls and assess the level of need. They log everything into the system and if they know immediately that it’s a child protection concern, they pass it straight over to the duty social worker at the same time alerting a manager.”
Social worker Rachel Rowson says the team works well together because “everyone has different skills and value bases and that serves us well in maintaining diligence and perspective on cases. I can’t promote informal supervision enough. Things like getting lunch with a colleague and chatting can be very important. We always go over cases and situations with each other. I also think a sense of humour is really important too – it helps us through the day and relieves some stress.”