Four years ago, the working environment in Essex County Council’s children’s services department was unstable. Social workers were struggling with the pressure of high caseloads, unclear thresholds for assessment and intervention, and the ongoing tension this created in their relationships with partner agencies.
An ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating prompted a major restructure of the department – changes that also coincided with the publication of the Social Work Reform Board’s recommendations and the standards for employers of social workers.
These standards became the basis for many of the changes Essex implemented and the council stood out as an example of good practice in a recent Community Care investigation, which found the take-up of the standards had been inconsistent in many local authorities.
Principal social worker Mandy Nightingale says the 2011 Ofsted inspection was a difficult time for social workers but following it the council was determined to enable and empower frontline staff. “We embedded the employer standards right from the beginning in our day-to-day practice,” she says.
The council has restructured its social work teams into a quadrant model (splitting the county into four sections) and brought in a permanent senior management team to ensure consistent practice.
“The rationale for this model was to make sure we had streamlined services for children and young people, right through from the front door to the leaving care teams,” says Nightingale.
Each quadrant is made up of the same number of children’s services teams, including assessment and intervention, family support and protection, children in care, leaving care, fostering support and a 0-25 service for children and young people with disabilities.
“This model benefits the social workers because there is a very clear structure of where children’s needs will be addressed,” says Nightingale. “Practitioners are sited together but all hot-desk. So they know each other and they know what goes on in the different teams.”
There were significantly high numbers of looked after children and child protection plans in Essex at the time of the restructure and the council focused on reducing caseloads. This involved reviewing existing cases to ensure the right level of intervention was in place.
“We worked with families to identify what it is they needed and what would make it safe for that child to actually develop as we would want them to do in that family,” says Nightingale. “Social workers are encouraged to work more closely with families and caseloads have reduced as a result.”
The council has also set a safe benchmark for caseloads and introduced an electronic system to monitor this. “Obviously teams differ because of the different rate that children’s cases come in and go out. But we did set a level that we would have caseloads of approximately 14 children and certainly no more than 18.”
The information tool collates children’s services data and all managers and social workers can access the system to view an individual’s caseloads or the average level for a team. “This is regularly monitored and challenged by our executive director to ensure that levels are kept down,” says Nightingale.
This work has been supported by the development of a guidance document for the council’s workforce and their external partners, which sets out a clear explanation of the threshold criteria. It uses a ‘windscreen model’ to identify the different levels requiring support for children and families – covering all partners through to the statutory interventions social workers provide.
Nightingale says this has also helped to reduce caseloads for social workers because there is a much better understanding of who is responsible for what aspect of support. “We have really good relationships with our partners now – health, education, voluntary and private agencies out there.”
Up-skilling the workforce
The next step was to up-skill existing staff and this was done through Essex’s social care academy, a training programme that aims to provide workers with high quality learning and professional development opportunities.
Through the academy, the council introduced a systemic model of practice for social workers, allowing them to work in a more relational way with families. This was recognised in the latest Ofsted report, which saw children’s services return to a ‘good’ rating.
“This approach is all about engaging with families, having respect for them and helping them to identify what their difficulties are,” says Nightingale. “Working ‘with’ families is the ultimate word – we are enabling our social workers to do the interventions.”
Workforce morale and stability has also been improved by reducing the number of agency staff in the department – approximately 50% of social workers employed in Essex at the time of the 2011 Ofsted inspection were commissioned from agencies.
“We stopped commissioning externally for agencies to deliver our social work and I think that gave respect and recognition back to our permanent practitioners,” says Nightingale.
This didn’t “happen overnight”, she adds, but figures from the council’s latest organisational health check show a significant reduction, with the number of agency staff now at just 7.1%.
An annual ‘health check’ was one of the Social Work Reform Board’s key recommendations and is a tool for evaluating whether caseloads, vacancies and workloads are at a safe level.
Essex Council published their third check in November 2014 and are committed to using the tool because, as Nightingale points out, it gives social workers the voice to get across how they think the organisation is implementing the employer standards.
“It’s a reassurance for social workers and a confirmation the council wants to hear what it’s like for them on the frontline,” she says.
The council consulted with a range of staff from across the county, including social workers, senior practitioners and team managers, to design the two components of the 2013-14 check – an online survey and 12 face-to-face workshops.
At the request of frontline social workers, the workshops were not run by managers and were instead facilitated by the council’s child in need reviewing officers, an experienced social worker and a staff member from the Essex Social Care Academy.
The workshops focused on four key areas from the Social Work Reform Board’s recommendations – change, management, tools and workloads and the aim was to understand what it was like to practise in children’s services and whether appropriate support was available to social workers.
“We just left it as a free flowing conversation to let people talk about those issues,” says Nightingale. “Not having managers present allowed the social workers to share their views very openly and 67% of the total number of places available were attended by them.”
The online survey was sent to 1491 staff (854 were qualified social workers) and has seen increasing response rates over the last few years.
Some of the key findings from the most recent survey included 94% of all responding social workers felt able to raise concerns about their workload with managers, 95% said their manager provided appropriate support and 90% said they received regular and dedicated time for supervision.
“Undertaking the organisational health check tells our social workers we actually respect them, we are listening to their voices and we want to empower them to do social work,” says Nightingale. “The responses to the survey really demonstrate that positive morale and the good feeling social workers here in Essex have got.”
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