‘How our social work went from Ofsted special measures to outstanding’

In 2012 Lambeth council’s children’s service gained quadruple outstanding ratings from Ofsted. Seven years before, the same service was on special measures. Andy McNicoll gets the inside story on a dramatic turnaround.

Image: Charlie Milligan
Image: Charlie Milligan

In 2005 Ofsted placed Lambeth’s children’s social services on special measures after a series of damning inspections. Last year the south London borough was rated as ‘outstanding’ for safeguarding, adoption, fostering and looked-after children services.

What lies behind the dramatic change in performance?

Political backing

Richard Baldwin, Lambeth’s head of family support and child protection, came into post in 2008.

He believes the foundations of Lambeth’s recovery were laid two years before his appointment, when the council’s political leadership woke up to the need to prioritise children’s services.

“You need that political will behind you,” Baldwin says. “Because you can be the best social worker in the world, but if you don’t have the tools to do the job you’re not going to make that difference.”

But this isn’t just about resources, Baldwin says. In recent years the borough’s children’s services have put in place a number of practical measures designed to get the best out of their social workers and better protect them from burnout.

Caseload control

Some 70% of the current staff also worked for Lambeth during the ‘special measures’ years and Baldwin praises the “local knowledge” of experienced staff who came through a difficult period.

One social worker tells me she juggled 37 cases during the crisis period in the early 2000s. Now her caseload is 17.

Baldwin says that a number of factors lie behind the change in caseload sizes, including a focus on early intervention work.

There has also been a drive to “work in a more focused way with families” so that cases are closed when key goals are achieved, or are moved back to preventive services “when it is safe and appropriate to do so”.

“At the moment we’ve got caseloads down to around the 19, 20 mark at most and we want to drive them down from there,” Baldwin says.

“One of the big wins that Munro gives the profession is that it takes everything back to quality. And there’s no way you can deliver quality on 37 cases. The best you’ll ever do is stop things getting worse.”

Accessible management

Lambeth’s heads of service have made an effort to be visible and accessible to their social workers too.

Baldwin sits out on the floor with his team and feels that social workers value the fact that bosses are open to challenge and “don’t hide away, tell them what we want them to do, and then disappear”.

Over the years Lambeth has also cut its use of agency social workers, preferring instead to invest in its ‘grow your own’ scheme for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs).

Baldwin admits that the move was “partly driven by pure economics” – employing 20 permanent staff is cheaper than 20 agency staff. But he feels that the approach has also driven up quality, as the borough’s teams have taken on a blend of youth and experience.

“That injection of interest and enthusiasm from the NQSWs has been key,” he says.

“Our experience is that you can get a better overall service hiring 20 young, motivated social workers, than some who have been in the job 10 or 15 years and are more interested in turning up, taking the money and going home.”

The importance of partnerships

Lambeth is a challenging borough. Social work cases often involve some combination of mental health, domestic violence and substance misuse – sometimes all at once. It means that building strong partnerships with health and other agencies has been vital, Baldwin says.

Social workers work with a local community-run gang project. It also helps that the local children’s safeguarding board doesn’t shirk tackling “the difficult issues”, Baldwin says. Work with statutory partners is aided by the fact that social workers are co-located with police and health visitors are embedded in some teams.

“I know it sounds obvious but these issues are too big for one profession to do on their own,” he says.

“Co-location can help keep difficult conversations between agencies measured too. It’s much harder to have a stand up row with someone who is two desks away than it is over email.”

“Walking a foot taller”

Having achieved the ‘outstanding’ ratings recently, I ask Baldwin if he notices a difference in his social workers?

They aren’t doing anything differently to what they were doing six months or a year before the inspection, he says, but the validation that their hard work was paying off did make “everyone walk a foot taller”.

What does he feel defines their overall approach to social work? Are his teams able to escape the risk averse, defensive practice that many social workers worry dominates the profession?

“I’m not going to say we’re not risk averse. This is about the safety of children as well as opportunities for families,” he says.

“But I think it’s about being much more alive to where families are amenable to change. Sometimes as a profession we can be too punitive on families. It’s about having the courage and competence to be able to distinguish between genuine risk and where you can see potential for change.”

But surely the success of last year is going to be hard to maintain? Especially in an area like child protection where the complexity of cases and high levels of risk involved mean the potential for crisis is never too far away.

Baldwin says his team has to keep adapting to the changing challenges facing Lambeth’s community.

The economic downturn is driving more young people into gangs, crime and the risk of sexual exploitation. He also fears that the welfare benefit changes being introduced this April will hit vulnerable families hard. 

“We have to be up and ready for these things,” he says. “I don’t think it gets any easier but we’ve got to challenge ourselves. 2012 was great and we’d like to repeat it this year.”

Check out more articles from our ’24 hours on the social work frontline’ series

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