Change in any field is difficult to achieve, but in children’s services the price of not turning round failure is often high and public.
Doncaster is a place where the struggle to achieve change is keenly felt. After several years of high-profile abuse cases and inspection failures, its children’s services became the first in the country to be moved out of council control, when the newly-created Doncaster Children’s Services Trust took over in 2014.
Even after this unprecedented intervention (since repeated elsewhere), change was hard to come by.
A year into its life, in 2015, the trust was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted despite it beginning to show improvements. While four of the five areas inspected were ‘requires improvement’ or ‘good’, its child protection services remained ‘inadequate’. There were some “serious weaknesses” in child protection cases, and care plans for children were not being routinely informed by updated assessments, inspectors said.
While a full turnaround in children’s services may not yet have been achieved, the trust was handed good news this week after a monitoring inspection by Ofsted praised “significant and continuing progress” being made in children in care services.
This followed two earlier monitoring visits by Ofsted in 2016, since its 2015 full inspection, which also highlighted improving services and a workforce that felt safe to work in Doncaster.
While keen to stress that children’s services are not “out of the woods” yet, trust chief executive Paul Moffat is delighted by the progress the trust has begun to make.
“[Ofsted] recognised high-staff morale, strong commitment to the trust, and support for the trust coming from frontline staff and progress that has been made across all those areas identified as being requires improvement in the 2015 inspection,” Moffat explains.
There are many factors at play in Doncaster’s progress, Moffat says, and these include the active role of the children in care council, which provides a voice to looked-after children, the trust taking part in projects financed by the government’s innovation fund and the flexibility trusts allow frontline staff.
However, the key step for him has been Doncaster’s development of, in Ofsted’s words, “a stable, well-supported, permanent workforce with manageable caseloads”.
While that is what most children’s services strive to achieve, it is notoriously difficult, and even more so for an area with Doncaster’s history.
“It was a challenge, historically, to attract permanent staff to Doncaster,” Moffat explains. However, he says the trust, and what it was designed to do, appeals to what social workers are looking for in an employer.
“Its clear values and principles were something that appealed to a number of staff who applied to the trust. They said they liked the way in which it was set up to focus on children’s social care, the training and development opportunities and the support offered through supervision and good management oversight,” Moffat said.
Social workers who transferred from the council-run services are also responding to the trust’s methods.
“The approach that we have taken as an organisation is to listen to the concerns of frontline staff,” Moffat explains.
“We’ve responded quickly [to concerns]. They like the agility of the trust. They like the fact that resources can be moved around relatively quickly. When they have issues raised with senior management there is a response quickly.
“Decisions are made speedily. There is less bureaucracy, although there is still too much. The staff also acknowledged the visibility and accessibility of management means that they feel supported and that they work in a safe environment, which helps them make good decisions for children and young people,” Moffat says.
To help understand the needs of the trust’s social workers, three frontline staff members now sit on the board. They give up-to-date reflections on practice development and the support provided throughout the organisation, with suggestions for improvements.
Moffat’s comments were reflected in this week’s report. Ofsted found social workers were positive about working in Doncaster, felt well-supported and appreciated the “reflective, learning approach driven by the trust”, which was translating into improved practice. Social workers were “committed advocates” for children in care, and were carrying out effective and timely assessments, supporting early permanence planning, inspectors said.
While immensely proud of the achievements Doncaster has made, Moffat insists the latest monitoring inspection is inspectors “reinforcing” that the trust knows what it does well. There’s still room for improvement, and the trust is targeting being ‘good’ or better in inspector’s eyes by October this year, and ‘outstanding’ by October 2019.
A closer eye on quality will help achieve this. Moffat says after a successful 12 months focusing on making sure statutory requirements are met, the trust wants to move to more qualitative work.
This will involve asking questions such as “how do we know that our interventions are working?”, and “how do we reflect the views of children and families so we get a more detailed analysis of what we know works and what we know doesn’t?”, he says.
Signs of this shift were picked up in the monitoring visit. Inspectors praised the trust’s auditing process, which it said was moving away from a compliance focus to one that looked at quality and the impact of the trust’s work.
Children’s services have responded to negative Ofsted inspections in different ways, with those in and out of local authority control showing improvements, yet eyes will always be on Doncaster as the flag-bearer of the kind of alternative delivery model the government wants to see more widely in children’s services.
Slough’s children’s services has already been moved into a trust, while Sunderland and Birmingham are following suit. Since trusts were established, people close to them have always insisted it’s not necessarily a model that will succeed everywhere, but it is one that seems to be working in Doncaster.