Sara Tough, Norfolk’s new director of children’s services, had barely got her feet under the desk when Ofsted called.
“Just over a week in, we had the call from Ofsted to say our inspection would be beginning,” she says.
A lot was riding on the inspection, Norfolk’s first since its inadequate rating of 2015. The council had spent a challenging few years working to improve children’s services and now was the moment for Norfolk to evidence its assessment of itself.
But would Ofsted’s inspectors agree with that assessment?
They did. In January Ofsted announced that Norfolk was no longer inadequate and that its adoption service was outstanding.
The inspectors found the service had turned a corner in the past 12 months. The pace of change had stepped up and critical weaknesses had been tackled. There was also a thumbs up for the strength of Norfolk’s leadership team, Sara included.
Ofsted reported that when its inspectors identified a problem within the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, Sara immediately took “rigorous, corrective action”.
“The newly appointed director of children’s services demonstrates strong leadership skills and commitment to drive the improvement required to the next stage,” added the report, which rated the service as requiring improvement.
For Sara the surprise inspection was a helpful start to her time in Norfolk.
“The inspection gave me a chance to pull together with the team here and get to know the service really well from the outset,” she says. “I feel like I’ve really connected with people and staff have responded really well to the fact that I’m here on a permanent basis, because that hasn’t been the case with previous interim directors.”
The former director of children’s services in Dorset says she was drawn to Norfolk because it brought her closer to family members and she saw strong potential in its children’s services.
“It was never my view that I was coming to an inadequate authority,” Sara says. “Norfolk felt like an authority that was going places. I could see the potential here and I felt I could really add something to achieve the shared ambition to provide excellence and make a difference for children and young people in Norfolk.”
The service not only has unwavering political and corporate support, including an extra £12m investment this year alone, but plenty of great social work to build upon, she says.
“There’s a lot of innovation here that has been making a real difference to children’s lives,” she says. “Some of that has perhaps been overshadowed by the previous Ofsted judgment but now that we are out of intervention we can really start to use that creativity to strengthen and grow the things we are doing well.
“For example, our programme for newly qualified social workers was highlighted in our inspection as best practice and is helping us to grow and retain our own talent.”
Another example is the outstanding-rated adoption service. “And although there is no separate judgment for fostering, we know that our fostering service is also good,” she adds.
The new Ofsted judgment has also boosted the morale of those working in the service.
“Norfolk has been under intense scrutiny, which has been demanding for managers and social workers but staff have been remarkably positive, resilient and determined in that context,” says Sara. “The new inspection outcome has further lifted spirits – their good work has been recognised. We’re all really excited about the future.”
That future is now what Sara is focused on as the service seeks to continue to rapidly improve and ensure that Norfolk’s children and families get the very best service possible.
Central to achieving this will be giving social workers the right conditions to thrive, including a good work-life balance, and making sure all services in the county play their part in the change.
“I want to see a whole system that pulls together because services to children and young people are not just the council’s responsibility,” she says.
“We can only get things right for children if we have high quality partnership working and a shared ambition across the county to deliver outstanding services for the communities we serve.
“That’s what I want to achieve.”