When children’s services departments are hit with an ‘inadequate’ rating, dramatic changes often follow.
Dudley council, which was rated ‘inadequate’ in April last year, need only look at two of its West Midlands neighbours to see the size of overhaul that can come in the wake of a negative inspection result.
Yet while Birmingham and Sandwell decided to shift their children’s services into independent trusts in a bid to improve, Dudley has pursued a different approach.
Sue Butcher, the council’s chief officer for children’s services, says the authority has focused on improving existing services by “doing the basics better”.
“I don’t think we have particularly changed anything that shouldn’t already be good social work or early help practice,” she tells Community Care.
There are early signs it is paying off. Figures published this month show the council has seen a 9% reduction in the number of looked-after children over the past year.
The number of social workers holding more than 21 cases has dropped 20%, from 65 to 52. According to the council, almost all social workers (93%) now have a caseload below 26, and half have a caseload below 21.
Workforce stability has improved too. When Ofsted’s verdict was published last year the council’s turnover rate was 16.4%. Last month it was just 2.4%.
How has the council achieved these improvements? Butcher says they are all linked. She says Dudley has boosted its early help offer, applied thresholds better, and made a series of simple changes to the way it works with looked-after children.
These include a new permanency policy that, in Butcher’s words, “guides social workers through and helps embed that concept of permanence and what permanence means”. Independent reviewing officers have also been empowered to have more oversight, giving them a “greater footprint” in children’s cases.
Holding to account
Another change has been the introduction of a weekly meeting for looked-after children teams that focuses on timeliness of practice.
“It’s not a ‘doing’ meeting as it were,” Butcher explains, “It’s a holding to account meeting. So who has come in and who has gone out? Why have they come in? What could we have done better?”
The council also introduced a training scheme focusing on what good social work looks like, practice standards, court work and preparation. Butcher says practitioners have valued the support.
“I wondered when I first came here whether some more experienced social workers would find it a bit patronising, but the overwhelming view was that this has been great training.”
Butcher says the reduction in social work caseloads has been achieved gradually. The solution hasn’t been “throwing more social workers at it”, she says, but instead about building on the improvements in early help and the way thresholds are applied.
Similarly, she says the improved workforce stability hasn’t come from paying social workers extra to stay but instead through efforts the council has made to make its services a more attractive place to work.
“What goes into the retention of social workers is making sure that they have the right tools to do the job. Not just your phone and the laptop, it is about time to do the job, it is access to good evidence and research, it is about good supervision, it is about good management.”
One change to help social workers free up more time has been the introduction of an extra assessment team. It means social workers are on duty one week in every five, rather than once a month, something Butcher says helps them to space their casework out more.
Recently Dudley has seen more agency staff move into permanent roles. Butcher says the council helps facilitate this by interviewing new agency social workers the same way they do permanent staff, meaning temporary workers don’t need a second interview if they later opt to take on the role full-time.
The council has also worked with its agency staff to discuss the implications of a series of tax reforms that came into force last month. The IR35 changes mean agency social workers registered as limited companies are likely to be liable for full PAYE and national insurance, rather than benefiting from the lower corporation tax rates.
“We spent quite a lot of time talking about IR35 and what we could offer social workers without compromising what IR35 is,” Butcher says.
This relationship meant agency social workers didn’t “disappear” and leave when the changes came in. Five agency staff have opted to become permanent team managers over the past six weeks.
Earlier this year, Ofsted revisited Dudley for a monitoring inspection. The report on that visit, published in March, found evidence of some “qualitative and sustainable improvements”.
Inspectors said staff morale was good, management oversight had increased and senior leaders were driving forward their “ambitious programme” of improvements.
Butcher recognises there is still a long way for Dudley to go but she’s encouraged by the early progress.
“This phase of the improvement journey we are on is not the immediate, after-inspection ‘crash’ as it were. It is about growing, it is about communicating with staff and really letting them know what is happening”.
Above all, she says, “it’s about measured improvement and building on what’s come before. It isn’t about rushing and throwing things around”.