‘I think I’ve found my spiritual home’: from the private sector and Ofsted to the social care director’s chair

A varied career and a willingness to try new ideas have helped Rachael Wardell get to grips with managing adults' as well as children's services

Rachael Wardell
Rachael Wardell, West Berkshire's director of children's services (Picture credit: Phil Adams)

Rachael Wardell has had an eclectic route to becoming the corporate director of communities, with responsibility for children’s and adults’ services, at West Berkshire council.

From taking a degree in English and Modern Languages, she worked in the private sector in logistics, in the Legal Services Commission and within Ofsted’s early years department, before finally moving into local government children’s services in 2009. She worked as assistant director within children’s services in Wokingham before taking up her current role in March last year.

“I think I’ve found my spiritual home now,” she says. “Working in the public sector has been an important move for me.”

If you don’t have the background expertise of having been a social worker I think it’s important that you show respect to those who do.”

While she has spent years getting to grips with the complexities of children’s services, she says her latest role is rapidly acquainting her with the equal complexity of adult social care.

“There’s definitely a different culture. I think it comes from the fact that adult social care is very tied up in the relationship with health whereas in children’s the strongest relationship tends to be with schools and education.”

Steep learning curve

But her varied career is helping her on her steep learning curve, she says, as she has learned to be consistently curious and open-minded and to spend a lot of time listening.

“If you don’t have the background expertise of having been a social worker then I think it’s important that you show respect to those who do and absorb their knowledge and experience.”

She adds: “My style isn’t to say I have the best idea and to try and impose it on people. But I ask questions at every opportunity and see if the seeds planted bear fruit.”

Her open mind is leading her to consider how approaches she has used successfully in working with children and families can be applied to adults’ services. This includes restorative practice, an approach to tackling harm or conflict where victims, their families and, often, perpetrators, come together to work out solutions and repair relationships.

“In Wokingham we used a lot of restorative practice as part of our version of the troubled families agenda and it was really successful.

Asking questions

“I’m asking questions about if we can’t use it here, not only in children’s services, but also in adults’ services, using family group conferences as the basis for dealing with safeguarding and care planning.” Family group conferencing has a long history in child protection, but is still only available in a few authorities in tackling adult safeguarding issues, though with encouraging results.

Wardell sees significant challenges ahead on both sides of her portfolio. In adults’ services, this includes making a reality of integration with health and of personalisation, when the council is, in Wardell’s words, a “big unwieldy organisation that is trying to focus on the very different needs of individuals”.

My style isn’t to say I have the best idea and try to impose it on people. But I ask questions at every opportunity.”

In children’s services, challenges come from the rapid expansion in the number of academy schools, as local authorities lose the amount of leverage they had over schools but none of the accountability, and from huge increases in child protection demand.

“And I don’t think you can really be a director of social care these days without spending most of your time thinking and worrying about money,” she says resignedly.

Embracing Twitter

But Wardell is perhaps best known for her embrace of social media such as Twitter, which is still relatively uncommon among senior council managers. Wardell – otherwise known as @WardellR – tweets regularly, reporting on her day and interacting with people at all levels of social care. At last October’s National Children and Adult Services Conference, she reported, almost journalistically, from the sessions she attended on the social media platform.

“I first tried it when I saw how teachers used it as a personal learning network. People will often share information and detail on Twitter that they don’t share in a different environment and there’s a huge amount of reading material and learning you can gain from it.”

However, she is unsurprised that few directors have followed suit.

“I do think it’s incredibly useful but I’m also very conscious there are a lot of pitfalls. I sometimes look at what I tweet and think it is all a bit anodyne, but it’s safer to be that way than the other.

“For me the real advantage of social media is the ability to seek out like-minded people and experts as well as those people who disagree with you and use them to continually challenge your ideas and conclusions.”

Rachel Wardell on:

A social care leader must be…interested in people, compassionate, brave

If I wasn’t a social care director I’d be a…I honestly don’t know. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be.

I’m most inspired by…quiet acts of moral courage. Those unsung heroes who stand by their principles, or those parents and families who care for children and adults in really difficult circumstances.

My staff describe me as…..I actually asked my staff and some of the answers were ‘approachable’, ‘interested’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘transparent’. Others also said that I listened and was reliable and attentive.

What keeps me awake…if I’m honest nothing keeps me awake at night as I’m usually so exhausted at the end of the day that I just crash. But I do worry that I will make a decision in good faith and later a child suffers harm or dies, and hindsight shows this could have been prevented. And across all social care services I worry that no matter how good the services are or how well we do them, they will still never be enough.

The government could make my job easier by….backing off a bit. I do think we are overly scrutinised by a lot of people who are not knowledgeable about the detail of the work we do. The government is doing a lot of good things but in some areas they are being very dogmatic and pushing a single agenda without listening to the people with expert knowledge in this area.

I’m proudest of…I’m very proud of the restorative justice projects we put in place in Wokingham but I’d like to think my career high is yet to come

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