Rotherham: ‘It was either leave and watch the changes, or be part of those changes’

How a restructure and strengthened partnerships helped turn Rotherham around

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Ailsa Barr, head of service for the locality and disability social work teams at Rotherham council, is recounting her personal choice to stay working for the council after the town’s endemic child sexual exploitation scandal was exposed.

With the council’s social services condemned for failing to protect the town’s children, change was vital.

“It was either leave and watch the changes happen from afar, or stay and be part of those changes, and be a part of constructing something that was better. There was a point of choice making, but I wanted to see it through.

“There was probably about 12 months that were really hard work. At the end of that, you began to see the foundations that were being laid, and the changes began to be tangible, and you began to see the direction of travel, and that the improvements we were making were sticking.”

Barr, and Kelly White, service manager for the duty and assessment function, are among the 75% of Rotherham council’s current workforce that was working at the local authority when Alexis Jay’s independent report exposed the child sexual exploitation suffered by 1,400 children in August 2014.

An Ofsted inspection followed – which rated the council ‘inadequate’ – and the then Department for Communities and Local Government intervened to appoint commissioners to run the council’s key functions. Rotherham had become ground zero for a national focus on child sexual exploitation, a topic that had experienced large scandals previously, but not on this scale.

Both Barr and White told Community Care that Ofsted’s inspection report published today, which rated Rotherham ‘good’ overall with an element of ‘outstanding’, offered reassurance and validation. The council has bounced back since 2014.

”Sat here now, on the back of the Ofsted report, confirms [staying] was the right choice. There’s lots of social workers  that will be reassured that they made the right choice. Not only social workers, there’s team managers, there’s early help professionals, all our partners. It’s everybody,” said White.

But amongst the huge changes, there was still the day job. “People had to carry on doing their day to day job and be supported to do that. Referrals didn’t stop; people remained concerned about the welfare of children, and we had to carry on doing the work we needed to do to make sure children were safe and we had to deconstruct our service and reconstruct our service all at the same time,” said Barr.

“We didn’t close for refurbishment, we carried on doing our jobs whilst we were taking our staff through that journey.

Team structures

“When I came caseloads were too high and we didn’t have the right skills mix so you had disproportionality across teams in terms of levels of experience,” said the council’s strategic director of children’s services Ian Thomas.

“We have worked hard at making sure that we’ve got the right skill mix in terms of advanced practitioners, experienced social workers and newly qualified. At the same time, we monitor caseloads on a day-by-day basis to make sure they are manageable.”

At the outset agency workers were hired to bring the caseloads down. “It can be destabilising if you’ve got high amounts of agency because children experience a change of social worker. It can create a tension between agency and permanent because of pay differentials, but our staff, through conversations understood that we needed to get the caseloads down to be more manageable,” said Thomas.

Advanced practitioner roles, a new grade for the council, were created and filled by experienced social workers with a small caseload. They largely supported and mentored social workers in their teams. Almost 40 newly-qualified social workers have been recruited over the last two years.

In addition, existing teams were restructured so that a team manager now manages one advanced practitioner and up to six full-time social workers.

”Pre-2014 we had some team managers managing 10,11,12 staff. That was never going to provide anyone [with] the right environment to do a good job. We’ve worked hard to make sure team managers have a reasonable span of control and have the time to provide formal and informal supervision,” said Barr.

Strengthened partnerships

A core turnaround for the local authority was its strengthened partnerships with other agencies, including the police and the health and voluntary sector. These relationships – or lack thereof – and poor information-sharing was heavily criticised by Ofsted in 2014.

White said: “I think we went back to absolute basics when it came to partnership work and we looked at each partnership and what our roles and responsibilities were. Working from that basis was easy to understand that we each played  a part in the plan for these young people. We’ve done a huge amount of work with South Yorkshire Police, we’ve done work with the hospital trust, individual schools, our early help colleagues about their working in local communities, with the voluntary sector, and that’s really helped.”

A Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub was up and running by April 2015, and Evolve, the council’s specialist CSE team was formally launched in June 2016. Evolve is a multi-agency team made up of voluntary sector workers, the police, health and social workers.

“They have brought huge learning to us and they’ve needed to use very different techniques and intervention models, and so they’ve been able to develop some of those, taking some national best practice,” said Mel Meggs, deputy strategic director for children’s services.

“It’s an area where everybody is still learning, so that team helps us to disseminate some of that best practice. They’ve done some amazing work, they have worked and stood alongside some young people for years and managed to stick with them. Sometimes we use the child protection system to do that, but we also have to use the criminal justice and civil system to protect those children, so it brings along a range of those methodologies.”

Despite the drastic turnaround of the service’s quality in Ofsted’s eyes, the shadow of the 2014 scandal still looms in Rotherham and moving away from that unwanted legacy is core to what the council is trying to achieve.

We want all of our children to be proud to come from Rotherham and there’s no doubt that whether or not they were affected by CSE the damage to the place they live is felt,” Meggs stressed.

Restoring pride in the town has been seen since 2014. Evolve was launched by a survivor of CSE who said, in an emotional moment for all involved with the council services, that she was proud to come from Rotherham again.

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