Improving children’s services in Plymouth

Two years ago government inspectors and senior managers combined forces to turn around Plymouth’s struggling children services. Bill McKitterick, who led the process, outlines how the strategic partnership approached its task

Five years ago inspectors identified Plymouth’s social services department as failing. Subsequent inspections found little evidence of improvement it was consistently rated “zero stars” in the annual assessments of quality and performance.

A series of critical inspections over several years, with no apparent evidence of improved performance, is a debilitating experience, especially when the council had made efforts to improve including monthly performance meetings with the inspectorate.

To make matters worse, perceived performance failings led to a stream of managers leaving. These key posts were not filled due to the lack of an effective recruitment and internal development strategies. This was against a background of four chief executives, four directors of service and four assistant directors coming and going between 1997 and 2005.

In 2006, the inspectorate, the government and the council agreed that the department needed external support. It then took six months to set up a full strategic partnership with a contract in place. This time lag caused further problems.

The partnership triggered substantial investment from government, the local authority and external partners.

The contract was tightly drawn. Outcomes were specified and the key tasks, success criteria and performance indicators mapped out. The contract allowed regular performance monitoring.

Getting staffing right

Sixteen external, experienced managers, who were all social workers, were jointly appointed by the council and the partnership programme director. This team was larger than the existing permanent management team.

Plymouth, having had the advice of numerous government-funded consultants in the past, had been able to improve some areas of infrastructure and support. Documents outlined other changes, which, if acted upon, could have delivered improvements earlier. However, some of these were lost because managers had left.

There had also been some temporary managers who had made a valuable short-term impact in their specific service area but had not been in a position to sustain the positive changes. To avoid this pitfall, the 16 interim managers in the partnership were embedded in the management structure.

Members of the partnership team had a dual loyalty: to their internal position in the service and to the partnership, which itself had its own external accountabilities. These different accountabilities were often, but not always, closely aligned. Under such arrangements a degree of tension was inevitable.

Addressing conflicts

These conflicts were addressed by regular team meetings, discussions between the three senior members of the partnership with the assistant director and fortnightly meetings between the service director and the programme director.

Another area of concern was information technology which had suffered from limited and slow investment in the systems to support social workers and care staff. This lack of responsiveness highlighted an enduring lack of commitment to direct services in parts of the council. There was a perception of social care staff lacking the authority to take hard decisions. Senior managers in children’s services have to learn to be assertive about what they require from the staff and then demand delivery.

Recruiting permanent senior staff and social workers proved problematic, a not uncommon occurrence in poorly performing authorities.

The greatest effort has gone into raising standards of practice and leadership through this the capacity of all staff has grown. This has given everyone more confidence to demand the support and ­collaboration of both colleagues and external agencies.

Key institutions

It has been noticeable how key institutions such as the local university that provides social work education, the courts and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service all, at certain stages, proved an obstacle to change. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to link their regulators and inspectors into the joint improvement journey.

Monitoring was rigorous but not as administratively burdensome as it had been for previous external support. It was less resource intensive than my own experience in two other government-funded local authority support and intervention programmes.

There were monthly meetings with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the director and the strategic partner. Every three months the council chief executive and cabinet member for children’s services joined the meetings.

While the authority was receiving special attention from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, as a consequence of having zero stars, the business link inspector used the monthly meeting with the director to check progress on the improvement plans and the unfinished child protection serious case reviews at one stage there were 13 reviews outstanding.

Opportunities for improvement

Having input from different organisations was creative and challenging. The strategic partnership was accountable to the government and to the council. It was also responsible for reporting impediments to improvement to all parties, including the inspectorates. It required goodwill from all parties and a joint determination not to become mired in process to ensure the relationship did not disintegrate.

The context of the new children’s services department and children’s trust gave a layer of complexity that has added to the excitement of the journey. The opportunities these provide to improve services for the most vulnerable children and families is substantial. At present this remains an aspiration. It will only be delivered by assertive professional leadership for those families, an increased permeability across the tiers of specialist, targeted and universal services and the delivery of universal services for all.

At the end of the two years the overall inspectorate assessments for children’s services moved from zero stars to “good” for overall effectiveness of children’s services, “adequate” for safeguarding, and “good” capacity to improve in the annual performance assessment in October 2007.

Fostering service success

The fostering service has moved from one that would have been closed in 2006 if it had been in the independent sector to scores of “good” and “outstanding” in two Ofsted inspections undertaken in September 2007 and reported in early 2008.

Bill McKitterick was strategic partnership programme director at Plymouth. He is also a former social services director at Bristol Council 1995-2005. He now leads the national support team for the newly qualified social worker pilot authorities for the Children’s Workforce Development Council


Bill McKitterick outlines the five key steps used to to turn around his department.

● The chief executive backed the need to support service improvement.

● The service director was committed to the methods being used to deliver improvement, as well as improve the performance of existing managers and practitioners.

● Professional standards and routine good practice had to be learned and re-learned across the whole organisation.

● All political parties in the council acknowledged the need to provide leadership, new policies and scrutiny for children’s services.

● The methodology for managing and monitoring the programme – focused on outcomes – was not too time-consuming.


● The full evaluation report is available from Bill McKitterick

This article is published in the 23 October 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “The change enforcers”

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