How UNISON helped turn round Surrey’s children’s services

Three years ago, Surrey Council's children's services department was in chaos. But with UNISON's support, management have been able to improve morale and performance.

Three years ago, Surrey Council’s children’s services department was in chaos. A damning joint area review published in July 2008 exposed serious problems and the government subsequently issued the authority with an improvement notice, while allegations of bullying and complaints over workloads prompted UNISON to threaten industrial action.

However, a follow-up report by Ofsted in September 2009 found there had been major improvements in Surrey’s safeguarding services since the review, and two months later the government said it would end its intervention and lift the improvement notice.

Listen to our podcast on how healthchecks improved working conditions in Surrey (third item).

Relations between management and UNISON have also improved. Earlier this year they co-operated on a “health check” of Surrey’s children’s social care services which will, according to the council, lead to further changes to working conditions.

Community Care spoke to two of Surrey’s children’s social workers about how the council has responded to the challenges it has faced, morale at the authority, and the issues that make a difference to their working lives.

Gwi Mudehwe works in Surrey’s South East area looked-after children team. He joined the authority in 2007 after moving to the UK from Zimbabwe.

Ali Joy qualified as a social worker in 2007 and joined Surrey Council in January 2008. She is based in its north west area child protection and care proceedings team.

Though allegations of bullying nearly led Surrey social workers to strike, Mudehwe and Joy say they did not experience or witness it in their teams.

“Whatever issues there were, the council now has clear-cut policies to address them,” says Mudehwe. “There’s lots of information on the intranet and things are dealt with appropriately.”

But Joy admits morale at the council was “quite low” when she joined in January 2008, not long before the publication of the critical JAR.

Her team also faced specific challenges, including the departure of a long-serving manager who was succeeded by temporary replacements.

“When everyone was trying to take on the recommendations of the JAR, we were trying to restructure,” she says. “But I felt things improved in the first 12 months.”

Joy also praises her team’s culture of “all being in it together”.

“We are all very supportive of each other and that’s what keeps us going,” she adds.

Relocation of services

Difficulty finding a parking space might not seem the greatest concern for children’s social workers. But this has been a consequence of shrinking office space.

All-day parking spaces at larger area offices are scarce, says Joy, while competition is fierce for suitable hot-desking space.

“It means getting in at 8.15 to make sure you get a parking space and desk,” she says. “If you get in at 8.45, you can only get a three-hour space and then you have to move your car before midday. You can lose an hour or so of working time when you could be writing up your reports.”

Mudehwe, who is based at the council’s Reigate office, says: “The number of parking spaces does not correlate with the number of workers.”

Surrey’s social work health check was notable for the co-operation between the council and UNISON. Mudehwe, a UNISON member, says the union’s involvement helped to convince participants that information they submitted would not be used to identify individual workers.

Joy was unable to take part in one of the 49 health check forums jointly facilitated by the council and UNISON, but says the main issue identified by her team was caseloads. “Everyone would be able to do the job to the standard they would like if we had lower caseloads,” she says.


A reorganisation of Surrey’s children’s social care services in 2010, into area-based specialist teams (for example, looked-after children, or child protection and care proceedings) rather than locality teams, created clear lines of accountability – but may have heaped pressure disproportionately on some services.

This is particularly apparent at the sharp end of child protection and care proceedings, says Joy. “In theory, the restructuring was an excellent idea,” she says, “but all the high-pressure work is being put into our team. We have more referrals and more children coming on to child protection plans.”

It is hoped that some of this pressure is alleviated when new social workers join Joy’s team in the weeks ahead.

Mudehwe agrees with Joy, saying there is not the same pressure from referrals in his looked-after team as in child protection. But one of the main demands on his time is visiting children placed outside Surrey, who account for four of his 14 cases.

Management support, communications and technology

Mudehwe says communication and support from Surrey’s senior management has “really improved” in the past couple of years.

This includes regular visits to the frontline from Caroline Budden, assistant director for children’s services and safeguarding (see below), as well as encouragement to keep up to speed with national policy and reports, such as the Munro review, and learning lessons from serious case reviews.

Joy says Budden’s visit to her team “made me feel better about my work”, and praises the support offered by her “very visible” area managers. A team away day focusing on techniques to manage emotional wellbeing was also beneficial, she says.

Joy and Mudehwe are also pleased with changes to the council’s IT strategy. Both have been given laptops this year, so they can work more easily from different locations, while Surrey has also introduced the integrated children’s system.

“It has taken a lot of getting used to but the principles will work once everyone has got their heads around it,” says Joy. “It will be fantastic if we get to a paperless system.”

How to improve staff morale: the management view

Caroline Budden (pictured top) says she focused on “going back to basics” when she joined Surrey Council as assistant director for children’s services and safeguarding in 2009, almost a year after the critical joint area review was published.

“It was about re-establishing form and function to ensure children were being safeguarded and that we built up the confidence and competence of the workforce,” she says.

The restructure into area-based specialist teams aimed to make staff “clear about what they did” and “able to develop the skills to do those things much better”.

Budden says new staff are being recruited to help ease the pressure on child protection teams in particular.

She also sympathises with staff concerned about parking and desk spaces – “I don’t have a reserved parking space,” she points out – but says the benefits of teams being co-located in area offices “outweigh the challenges”.

Budden is clear that good communication with staff is crucial, which is why she spends time every month working in frontline teams.

“I’ve found it important to remember how complex some of the most seemingly simple cases can be,” she says.

She is also keen to address some of the issues identified in Surrey’s social work health check.

“It’s important to look at the things you can do almost instantly, like an audit of printers and photocopiers; stuff that can make people’s lives much easier very quickly.

“You must not underestimate how important these things can be to people.”

It’s important not to falsely raise hopes, though. “We have to communicate what we can do or the reasons why we can’t do something,” she adds.

After carrying out the workload “health check”, Surrey children’ services began:

• auditing the quality of supervision to ensure staff well-being was always considered

• providing coaching skills training for managers

• offering team leaders the chance to study for Institute of leadership and management qualifications

• trialling a new approach to parking to give social workers greater access to spaces

• rolling out new IT equipment to support mobile working and improve productivity

• running “back to the floor” visits to social work teams for the head of children’s services

• widely publicising the resources and support available to staff

How UNISON has helped councils improve work conditions

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