Support for social workers is key to fixing failing services, says Slough’s new children’s commissioner

Following last week's news that Slough will follow Doncaster and have its children's services moved into an independent trust, Community Care talks to key players Eleanor Brazil and Paul Moffat about the model

Eleanor Brazil laughs off the suggestion that she has become the ‘go-to’ person when it comes to independent children’s services trusts. “I’ve only been involved in Slough for a week!” she says as we discuss her recent appointment as children’s commissioner for Slough’s children’s services.

It’s not Eleanor’s only job. She is also the director of children’s services for Doncaster, where she has helped oversee the creation of the UK’s first independent trust for children’s services which launched on 1 October. Now she is tasked with directing the implementation of a similar independent trust for Slough’s children’s services.

“Children’s services is a pretty small world and people who have been involved in authorities and intervention and improving services are an even smaller number,” says Eleanor. “So I guess I am somebody who will have a lot of experience that I am really happy to share with people.”

Having a hand in both trusts means she is uniquely placed to talk about a model for delivering children’s services that was unheard of over a year ago. One potential advantage of having an independent body delivering children’s services is that it will keep services free of local authority bureaucracy.

“An independent organisation gives the opportunity to increase the pace of improvement, to look at more flexible and innovative ways of doing things, and attract people who otherwise might not particularly want to move to those areas,” she says, adding that another plus is that these trusts are organisations focused solely on one goal.

Paul Moffat, chief executive of Doncaster’s independent children’s trust, echoes Ekeanor’s sentiments. He says that a trust has more freedom by not being attached to a local authority: “I think that helps us to focus just on the need of children and families in Doncaster and not have to worry about competing demand from other services, which I think will enhance our improvement and help us to achieve the targets that we set.”

Eleanor’s experience of establishing the trust in Doncaster is something she believes will help ease the transition in Slough. While Slough will be different, she notes that many of the same issues will need to be considered such as staff morale and turning around a workforce in a service that has been deemed inadequate.

She says that one of the keys to tackling these problems is to maintain a focus on improving services even during the transition.

“Improvement isn’t just an issue because of the quality of the workforce, a lot of it is about how they are led and supported, how you work with partners, a whole range of things, and if staff are not well supported they won’t necessarily do a good job,” she says.

Paul agrees and says that providing staff with the best support, good supervision, reasonable caseloads, access to specialist management and good senior management oversight are all goals for improving children’s services in Doncaster, which hopes to be ‘outstanding’ by 2019.

He is also eager that the staff who have transferred from the local authority to the independent trust don’t dwell on the past: “I want staff to see this as an opportunity for them to work within an organisation whose pure focus is purely on children and young people’s services. They can concentrate on delivering those high-quality services and being part of solution to the problems from the past.”

Despite talking up the benefits an independent trust can offer, Eleanor doesn’t see the model taking off nationally. “It’s not a model that I would see happening in huge numbers, there are particular circumstances in Doncaster and Slough,” she says. “It’s always time consuming to set up something new and to move staff across and all of those things. You have to weigh up the potential advantages against the potential for consuming lots of time and resource and distracting people from the need to improve services.”

Eleanor is also quick to close the door on fears that these non-profit making trusts could open the door to private companies running children’s services: “I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think any local authority would want to commission from an organisation like that.”

While she doesn’t expect the trust model to be taken up widely, Eleanor is confident that what has been built in Doncaster has “every chance of being really, really successful”, and Paul believes what is happening in Doncaster will become something other councils will want to learn from.

The Doncaster trust, he says, is focused on building a service that is “innovative, dynamic, flexible, agile”: “We want it to be a leader.”

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