Then there were three

Tower Hamlets social services department achieving three stars
is a bit like local team West Ham winning the Premiership. While
the potential was always there, people were wondering whether it
would ever be fulfilled.

The borough is one of the most deprived in England. There are high
levels of poverty and unemployment, problems with overcrowded
housing, and a high proportion of people receive incapacity

Despite its poverty, Tower Hamlets social services has achieved
what for many seemed the impossible – a three-star rating from the
government. Not surprising, however, when you look at the progress
made by the borough in recent years.

Since social services star ratings were first introduced in May
2002, the borough has been steadily climbing the ranks. From an
initial one-star rating with “promising” and “excellent” prospects,
Tower Hamlets moved up a grading when the ratings were refreshed
six months later – prompting claims from the council that it had
only been kept down to one star before because of incomplete data.
It remained a two-star authority in last year’s ratings but had
again improved and was considered to be serving most, rather than
some, people well in both adults’ and children’s services.

Of course, Tower Hamlets is not the first borough in a deprived
area to receive three stars. Knowsley and Sunderland have both
already done so, but in the eyes of Ian Wilson, Tower Hamlets’
social services director, his authority’s three stars are different
because of the borough’s cultural mix – nearly half of its
residents are from ethnic minority communities, a third are
Bangladeshi, and almost 100 different languages are spoken in the

“There’s a racist assumption around in British society that black
people are not associated with success. Tower Hamlets stands that
on its head. Two-thirds of our council and cabinet are people from
ethnic minority backgrounds and the leader of our council is
Bangladeshi. It’s a success story,” he says.

Exactly how this social services transformation at Tower Hamlets
has been achieved is something that directors up and down the
country will want to discover. Wilson says that the key has been
motivating everyone to become “obsessive” about performance

“It’s about getting people to focus on the right things.” The work
that contributes to performance indicators helps improve the
quality of services, he says.

This concentration on performance indicators has obviously paid
off. For example, in the 1999-2000 classifications the borough
received an “investigate urgently” banding for A3 (re-registrations
on the child protection register) and C26 (admissions of supported
residents aged 65 or over to residential or nursing care). Last
year both these indicators had leapt up the five bandings to the
top classification of “very good”.

Support from politicians has also been crucial. “Nobody can do this
stuff if the politicians don’t back you. They have been willing to
prioritise expenditure on vulnerable adults and children and even
in years where the settlement has been less favourable from central
government they have still been willing to prioritise social
services spending. We have not had a stop-go situation where one
year we’re told yes it’s okay to spend and then having to cut back
next,” says Wilson.

He gives the bulk of the credit to staff, maintaining that it is
the people at all levels of the council that have made the
difference. Tower Hamlets has, from more objective sources, become
well known for its innovative approaches to people management, and
is currently a beacon council for supporting social care

Over the past five years more than 100 people from the local
communities have been recruited and trained to become social
workers and occupational therapists as part of the council’s “grow
your own” philosophy. More than a third of the authority’s
workforce are from ethnic minorities, and the recruitment of
bilingual staff from the local Bangladeshi Sylheti and Somali
communities has enabled services to be offered without the need for

Twice the inner London average is spent on training and
development, and attractive rates of pay have, unsurprisingly, gone
some way towards retaining staff.

“Harmony in the team is achieved by keeping people on the team.
Every single worker is permanent. We must be unique in that,” says
Ricardo De La Motta, care manager for the learning disability

He has been working for Tower Hamlets for five years and has seen
at first hand how the council has improved.

“When I first came into the team in 1999 there were clients who
hadn’t been seen by a care manager for years. I don’t think that
happens anymore. Now we aim to see clients for at least a yearly
review,” he says.

Motta sees his role as an example of the innovative methods used by
the council. Although he works in the learning disability service
he has just finished training to be an approved social worker so
that he can assess people with learning difficulties and mental
health needs more accurately.

“Transition” workers have also been established within the learning
disability service to work with children aged 14 and upwards. They
attend year 10 reviews for statemented children to identify where
services are needed and prevent people from “just appearing” at the
age of 18.

Meanwhile, Tower Hamlets’ leaving care service has just been
awarded the government’s charter mark for excellence in customer
service. Its user involvement project was particularly praised – it
employs care leavers to facilitate communication between service
users and professionals while at the same time helping them to gain
a qualification (see case study).

Tower Hamlets’ new ethos is summed up by practice manager Kenny
Harry when he describes services for young people: “We have broken
the mould of ‘professionals know best’. We’re asking young people
what they want from the service so they can own and shape it
instead of us saying ‘I haven’t been in care but I know what’s

‘I was on the dole and bored’ 

Tanya Nessa, 22, grew up in Tower Hamlets and now lives in the
Poplar area of the borough. She is a care leaver who has been in
touch with the service since she was 16, and has seen it change.  
As a user, she was reluctant to use the service.”I didn’t want much
contact. None of my friends were care leavers so it was difficult
trying to explain to them where I was going. At one point I didn’t
come here for a year or so,” she says.   By the time she was 17 she
wasn’t in education or training, and was “on the dole, sitting at
home bored”. At 19 she had a baby.  Tanya began to attend steering
groups to give her views on leaving care services and was
eventually offered some sessional work for a couple of hours during
the day. When a user involvement trainee post came up last year she
applied, got it, and is now studying for an NVQ level 3 in health
and social care: working with young people and children.   She
spends four days with the leaving care service and one with a
training provider who helps with coursework and basic skills. When
she’s at the leaving care service she does various tasks ranging
from helping with the newsletter to talking to young people.  
“Young people would rather talk to other young people about
something they are facing. As we’ve been care leavers they think we
can understand more,” she says.  She receives a £45 living
allowance, a £30 incentive payment that is based on
attendance, and travel expenses.  Tanya is one of two user
involvement trainees – they are the fourth and fifth people to do
the role since it was set up five years ago. Two care leavers have
gone on to become personal advisers for the service.

Moving on up

“There’s a consistent group of social workers that have been in
the team for several years. They have local knowledge of various
families and strong links with other professionals and agencies.”
Peter Joseph, social worker in the children and families advice and
assessment team.  “Now we are working with allocated workers who
are there for a while rather than agency staff who come and go.
When you’re working with a child on the register it doesn’t help if
there’s one worker at a case conference and then another at the
next.” Patrick Lonergan, project manager, Family Welfare
Association, Tower Hamlets.  “In terms of the way the department
communicates with the voluntary sector it’s been fairly good. My
sense is of a vibrant department.” Harrinder Dhillon, service
director for the Drug and Alcohol Service for London, and chair of
the health and social care forum of voluntary organisations.

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