It’s been three weeks since Annie Hudson, the former chief executive of the College of Social Work, arrived at Lambeth Council.
As the interim strategic director of children’s services she has been asked to help turnaround the department that saw its Ofsted rating go from outstanding to inadequate in just three years.
Ofsted’s 2015 inspection pulled no punches.
No quick fixes
Inspectors found leadership failures had caused almost all the council’s safeguarding and looked-after children services to deteriorate in quality. Performance information to help managers make decisions was poor or non-existent. Social work assessments and plans were not good enough and poor practice was going unchallenged. The welfare of looked-after children was not being safeguarded or promoted.
Hudson readily admits that turning things around in Lambeth will be tough and take time.
“This is a two- to three-year project – there aren’t any quick fixes,” she notes.
But she says there is widespread recognition from staff, managers and elected members that Lambeth must make substantial improvements and that that improvement has to be undertaken, not just by children’s social care, but by the whole organisation and the wider partnerships with other agencies.
Ambitious improvement plan
It was, she says, what attracted her to what his her first role following the demise of the college.
“I’ve was struck by the ambition of the improvement plan. It isn’t about tinkering with some of the problems in a piecemeal way.”
The first phase of redesigning services has involved creating smaller teams. Six pilot teams trial new ways of working, with other teams due to follow suit over the course of this year. This, she says, should keep the focus on the outcomes being achieved rather than structures and processes.
They have also introduced six ‘privileged’ social work methods such as systemic practice and attachment theory. Training in the methods is undertaken and then practitioners are given time and space to try and apply the training with families and to reflect on the results.
Extensive training programme
Hudson describes it as “one of the most extensive training programmes I have seen” and she credits it with the fact they recently had over 100 applications for their social work posts.
As a result of its inadequate rating, the borough is also getting help and advice from the Department for Education, social work consultants Morning Lane Associates and Ofsted. For good measure Lambeth Safeguarding Children Board is now chaired by Andrew Christie, the director of children’s services for the ‘tri-borough’ of Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea which recently received two ‘outstanding’ Ofsted ratings
While having a social enterprise such as Morning Lane, rather than another council, as an improvement partner might be unusual, Hudson says they bring a different, ‘hands-on’ kind of practice intelligence and approach which has already been helpful.
Ingredients of first-class social work practice
Hudson, of course, brings not only her past experience as Bristol’s director of children’s service but also her experience as the chief executive of The College of Social Work.
“Notwithstanding the college’s very sad end – through that role I worked with a huge range of members and stakeholders, thinking through what are the ingredients of first-class social work practice and how do we enable social workers to work well,” she points out.
“I didn’t have that understanding and knowledge to the same degree when I was in Bristol, even though I knew a lot about social work and am a social worker by background.”
She believes such knowledge will be vital in Lambeth where the need and the aim is to develop a ‘really meaningful framework for first-class practice’.
“We’re working on that at the moment. It’s about looking at best practice elsewhere and not unthinkingly adopting it but making sure it really fits the needs of our workforce and our population.”
Ultimately, she says, it is about developing the capability and confidence of practitioners, something she describes as “practice dexterity”.
A new set of standards and expectations has also been co-produced with staff and copies have been posted up around the office walls. They include, for example, a commitment to reflective supervision and a culture of learning from both the organisation and practitioner.
Commitment to reflection
“So while the organisation needs to provide high quality training and the time and space to apply it, the practitioner also needs to go to the training and then commit to applying what’s been learnt in practice and reflecting on that.
“It’s what we were always talking about at the college around continuing professional development but really looking at how to make that happen,” Hudson adds.
Quarterly “practice weeks”, where senior managers spend a week with practitioners on the frontline, have also been introduced and Hudson is due to take part in the first one next week.
What helps and hinders social work
“The purpose is two-fold. One, it will let us get a feel for the quality of practice now and understanding children’s journeys through services, but it also allows us to have a dialogue with practitioners as to what helps and hinders their work.
“It really grounds you because as a manager it is easy to lose touch,” she adds.
Initially, however, Hudson has to complete the recruitment of the senior management team who will help her implement many of these goals.
This includes a director of social care, who will deliver the overall strategy and two assistant directors – one responsible for safeguarding, the other to oversee early help services – and Lambeth’s first principal social worker post for children’s services.
Energy of a new management team
It is rare for so many senior, permanent posts to be recruited at once and but this brings its own energy, Hudson says.
“There is something about being part of a new team, which is very exciting. It makes me think back to a time when I joined a very new, fresh team – you have this sense of ‘we can do this together’.”
While the road ahead will be tough, Hudson points to Lambeth’s education service as an example of what can be done.
“They have undergone an amazing journey of successful improvement and 94% of Lambeth’s schools are now rated good or outstanding, yet it was regarded as having a very problematic service 10 to 15 years ago.”