Stars in the making

The 38 local authorities that cover the Midlands have a very
real image problem. Birmingham, synonymous with the region and one
of the biggest authorities in the country, has a zero-star rating,
and many other councils in the area are tarred with the same
poor-performance brush.

“The region is concerned about our apparent poor performance
compared with different parts of the country,” admits Robert Lake,
West Midlands branch chair for the Association of Directors of
Social Services and director of social care and health at
Staffordshire Council.

Lake says that while some authorities may seem to perform a little
below others’ standards, this could simply be because of the
techniques they use to record data.

“Are we doing it differently to other regions and therefore not
selling ourselves as well as we could be?” he asks.

Other issues are more localised. In Birmingham, for example, child
protection issues are a major concern for Peter Hay, the strategic
director of social care and health at the council.

Hay accepts the local authority needs to build up strength in all
its services for children in need following a history of poor
investment in staff, and a lack of focus on supervision and team

Birmingham has started to address the problems by putting in place
supervision for all social workers and social services staff linked
to their personal development portfolios. So far, he says, staff
have responded positively.

Improving children’s services is also on John Bolton’s mind and has
been ever since he became social services and housing director at
Coventry. He has been in post for the last two years after leading
the Audit Commission’s joint review team.

Moving to Coventry was an interesting decision on Bolton’s part –
at the time the social services department was on special measures
because of its dire provision for children. Bolton freely admits he
believes the whole of the city council should have been on special
measures because it was failing local children. His priority was to
get the basics right in social services and he was rewarded when a
year into the job his department came off special measures.

Having a portfolio containing housing and social services has
helped Bolton ensure that any extra care needs of tenants and
residents are taken into consideration. The authority has the
largest amount of extra care housing provision in the country and
uses it as an alternative to residential care.

“As we develop a housing strategy for the city, we have to ensure
we have the right mix of housing and support to meet people’s needs
whatever they are,” he says.

As with the rest of the country, star ratings matter greatly to
local authorities in the Midlands. Birmingham has a one-star rating
– a fact that Hay is only too aware he needs to improve. Coventry
is a good example of how an authority can move from zero stars (two
years ago for its children’s services) to one star.

Unlike its neighbours, Solihull is a step ahead, as its social
services department has a two-star rating. “The star rating is a
validation of how we are doing and not an end result in itself,”
says Michael Hake, Solihull’s corporate director of social care and
performance. He adds that Solihull has a strong focus on outcomes
for people and a very structured performance management

Faced with an increasing number of older people requiring services,
Solihull Council launched a scheme two years ago to provide often
vulnerable residents with information on how to maintain their
well-being. The idea behind the Safe and Sound scheme is for
residents to become more independent in their own homes by
providing the necessary low-level support but also improving their
home security.

So far 2,000 people of all ages have signed up to the Safe and
Sound initiative and have had an assessment by social services and
housing of their care and environmental needs followed by the
appropriate action. Hake says the programme has proved popular with
users. Some people are even buying a subscription to the service as
Christmas presents – it costs £6 a week for an alarm pendant
that connects them to services.

Last April Birmingham followed the example of Kirklees and teamed
up with the council to introduce a series of service improvement
workbooks for all staff. It has distributed 315 of the workbooks
across all its offices and trained a worker at each to champion the
workbook’s message.

Hay says: “Instead of a director pontificating about what it means
to work in a child care office and what social workers have to do,
staff can look at the workbooks instead and find out what the
service requires.”

The initiative cost no more than £10,000 and Hay believes the
results have been invaluable, helping to bring about a major
positive change in the way staff feel about working for Birmingham

Recruiting and retaining high quality staff is an issue all
councils are struggling with, and the Midlands is no different.
According to Lake, the average age of the social care workforce in
the region is over 50 and there is a real issue about how
authorities are going to replace staff leaving residential and
community care settings. “The Midlands is an area that people don’t
think about when looking for work but it’s a very vibrant part of
the country,” he says.

Birmingham has tackled this problem head on with a scheme to
encourage social workers to stay with the authority by sponsoring
them while they complete a social work course. The first phase,
which started last February, pays 31 people a full-time salary as
they study and the second phase began last month. In the past 12
months the vacancy rate across children’s services in Birmingham
has fallen from 33 per cent to 25 per cent.

So what does the future hold for social services in the

Hake says encouraging people to join Solihull’s social care
workforce is a priority and the council provides NVQ training for
care assistants to attract staff.

Coventry aims to improve its partnership working. Bolton says
partnerships in the city were “fragile” two years ago but are
growing stronger: “The different agencies don’t always agree, but
at least we are talking about it together now and not moaning
behind each other’s backs.”

Hay says that Birmingham is determined to approach more of its work
with a region-wide rather than city-wide perspective: “We are
trying to find ways of working across the Midlands because by
working as a region all parties gain.”

In Numbers 

  • Almost 20 per cent of Birmingham’s population is from an Asian
    background, 70 per cent are white and 6 per cent are black.
  • Coventry has a population of 300,000.
  • 88 per cent of Coventry residents are white, 7.3 per cent are
    Asian and 1.1 per cent are black.
  • Solihull covers 69 square miles, 70 per cent of which is
    designated green belt.
  • 78 per cent of all households in Solihull now own or are buying
    their homes compared with 67 per cent in 1981.


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