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The past few years have been tough for Slough children’s services. Following an inspection in late 2013 Ofsted handed the service its second consecutive inadequate rating. The Department for Education responded by stepping in and ordering the creation of an independent trust to drive improvement.
“It is not a good thing to have happened but Slough is changing and it’s now an exciting time,” explains Dr Krutika Pau, the interim director of children’s services.
Move away from hot-desking
The situation in children’s social care has improved noticeably since Ofsted’s last visit. The lack of places where social workers could discuss confidential cases in private has been addressed by a move away from hot-desking and the office refurbishment. More social workers have been brought in to ensure that caseloads are now manageable, with levels among the lowest in the region.
“The council has invested significantly in ensuring that we have more frontline staff so that caseloads are more manageable, falling to an average of 16 per worker from over 20 plus,” says Pau.
There’s also a stable management team, which is so crucial in driving improvement. “We’ve stabilised turnover and increased the number of permanent staff, particularly in practice management roles, where we’ve recruited over 70% of our posts,” she adds.
Trust focused on outcomes
“We’re going to have an independent trust that is going to be completely focused on improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children in Slough. The chair and chief executive have already been appointed and the new organisation is very ambitious, as are the councillors.
“We all want to deliver the very best outcomes for children in Slough and social workers will absolutely have a chance to help shape the service. It will be something that they will be able to shape and develop and grow with. I think it will be a very exciting place to come and work,” says Pau.
Work is also underway on establishing a multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) to tackle the poor quality referrals that Ofsted found were adding to the pressure and workload on children’s social workers.
Multi-agency safeguarding hub on the way
“At the moment we’ve got co-located staff. It’s not quite a MASH, we’re working with health to try and work that out, and since I joined in February I’ve rationalized a number of partnership meetings so we have fewer, more focused meetings.”
Such changes are just the beginning, adds Pau: “All of this will get built on as the trust comes on stream in the autumn. I’ve seen some foundations laid, some seeds sown, but I can really see that over the next few months things are going to gather pace.”
Following similar arrangements in Doncaster, Slough will be the second place in England to have an independent trust responsible for children’s social care.The trust will start operating in the autumn and all staff will be transferred. Terms and conditions, including pay and pensions, will be protected.
One change she hopes will take off in a big way is the new role of consultant practitioners. “We’re really focusing on developing the consultant practitioner role, so that they will provide more support to social workers, increase reflective supervisions and really drive forward improvements in practice,” she says.
Positivity of the frontline
It would be easy to imagine that morale among Slough’s social workers collapsed in the wake of that Ofsted report, but Pau says that’s anything but the case. In fact, since she arrived in February she has been pleasantly surprised by the positivity among the frontline.
“As an interim DCS I came in thinking morale must be low, but actually staff are really, really positive about working here and they are quite excited about moving into the new organisation.
“They are really up for it. When you don’t know a place, and you’re on the outside, there’s a whole mythology around it. You read the Ofsted reports and get a certain impression so I’ve been surprised at how positive, skilled and committed the staff are and how excited they are about being in the new organisation. It’s not about them being dragged into that process, they want to be part of the decision making and the shaping of the new organisation and I know they will have the opportunity to do this.”
Keeping staff happy
One example, she says, was a meeting she had with a group of frontline social workers a week earlier. “When I asked the group what would attract you to leaving Slough, someone who has been here for about two years said, ‘Actually nothing, nothing would make me leave and go somewhere else’. I said, ‘Ok, what keeps you here then?’ She said, ‘Well the pay’s quite competitive, the salary is good, I get a retention payment and parking, my caseloads are not too bad and my manager is always there when I need her’.
“It’s not that everything is perfect of course, but I didn’t get the sense that they were complaining. We’re not where we were when Ofsted came, there is evidence of improvement. We have a long way to go yet and that’s why the independent trust will help with the pace of change and improvement, but we have been making good and steady progress.”
Pau says the council’s social workers have told her they want more career progression opportunities and she believes that the new arrangements, the improvement agenda and the involvement of the DfE will help make that wish come true. Besides, being part of the team that turns the service around will be a great career opportunity in itself, she adds.
“If you are going to do this kind of work, and this was my own thinking too, why not do it somewhere where I can make the biggest difference and have the greatest impact?,” she says.
“The focus of the new trust will ensure there are some really good learning and development opportunities for social workers at Slough as well as career progression, innovative ways of doing things and learning from other places.
“In terms of need I find Slough fascinating as I’ve always worked in London and Slough has got many, many challenges that are similar to inner London and some parts of outer London. We’re highly multi-cultural and our families face many complex challenges. Slough is a great place to work, learn and use your expertise to help children and families.
“It’s a place where social workers can learn and develop their skills and, hopefully from my perspective, stay and seek progression, but they will also become very attractive employees for wherever they go next. I would say to those thinking of working here, are you likely to get these opportunities where you are now? We want Slough to become one of the best places in the country to be a social worker.”