Children’s social care inspections are rigorous, intense processes that can dominate a service during inspection and, in some cases, for years afterwards too.
Many local authorities might therefore be reluctant to put themselves forward for a fresh inspection, especially one earlier than planned. Yet that’s exactly what Nottingham council did earlier this year, when it volunteered to trial Ofsted’s new inspection framework.
The pilot inspection results are now in. Ofsted rated Nottingham’s services as ‘good’, a grade above the ‘requires improvement’ judgement received in 2014.
Inspectors said the council had made “significant process” since their last visit. The council’s social workers were completing “purposeful work” and considering children’s views carefully. Caseloads were manageable and senior leaders had created an environment that helped social workers “flourish”.
It was a big undertaking to move services on from ‘requires improvement’, says Helen Blackman, Nottingham’s director of children’s integrated services. She feels it was achieved by building on a solid base identified by inspectors three years ago.
“We embraced the changes we needed to make, but we started from a position of having a very strong, committed, skilled and dedicated workforce in the city,” Blackman explains.
She says the council began its improvement journey by identifying three priorities for the kind of city it wanted Nottingham to be: “To be a learning city, to build resilience in children and families in communities, and prioritise health, mind, bodies and relationships.”
As well as identifying strategic aims, Nottingham made changes to frontline services too.
Separate directorates for early help and social work merged, which helped the local authority work better across the partnership and find the right services for families in need. The front door service was changed to incorporate early help and other targeted services, such as the duty and CAMHS services. These changes meant children who fell short of the threshold for social work could still be referred to more suitable services.
Restorative practice, a way of working focused on building healthy relationships, resolving difficulties and repairing harm, was embedded in social work supervision.
A total of 15 social workers trained as restorative supervisors in a bid to invest in their resilience and welfare. The council invested in two multi-systemic therapy projects and practitioners were also given more space to think outside the box.
Investment can be hard to come by in the current climate, but the council was supported by political leaders. Councillor David Mellen, the city’s portfolio holder for early intervention and early years, said funding was made available following the 2014 inspection, with a view towards the service’s long-term sustainability.
“For each of the investments we have had to make the case that it will not just be better for children, but also [have] financial payback,” Mellen explains.
The argument was that the council’s investments in recruiting and training more NQSWs would help reduce agency spend, while multi-systemic therapy projects would reduce the need to remove children into care.
The council also invested more than £4 million in a new IT system for social workers. With technology identified as a weakness in the 2014 inspection, Blackman says it is now a real strength.
“We’ve moved over to a much more intuitive IT system. It has been a challenging project, but was really embraced by our workers as a system that makes it easier for them to do their recording,” Blackman explains.
More social workers
Inspectors also noted how social workers in Nottingham have manageable caseloads, whereas in 2014 the numbers were higher than the council’s maximum.
Blackman explains this was achieved by “over recruiting” social workers by recruiting between seven and 10 assessed and supported year in employment social workers at a time, aiming to increase the workforce by 40 by 2018.
To attract social workers, the council offers extensive training opportunities.
“People join us and then spend a month learning about our early help, CAMHS, family intervention projects,” Blackman says.
Newly qualified social workers receive taught sessions beyond their assessed and supported year in employment, and each cohort is mentored by a head of service, who then guide them through their career as their “champion and advocates”.
“We give them time in duty teams, so they get the opportunity to spend time alongside experienced practitioners, learning about child protection work, being out on the frontline with people who can advise and guide them,” Blackman adds.
Experienced social workers who apply to Nottingham are fast-tracked for interviews, so they don’t have to wait in a process or recruitment window. This generally leads to one or two members of staff being hired a month through bespoke interviews. These factors helped make Nottingham an “employer of choice” in Ofsted’s judgement.
Nottingham is also working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University on a “grow your own” social work scheme the council hopes will create its next generation of social workers.
In total, 32 people “from a range of backgrounds” are taking their first steps to complete a social work degree “on a distant placement and taught model” beginning this autumn. It will involve a mixture of two taught sessions a month, self-study and placements inside local services.
The changes in service have led to improved outcomes for service users. An internal report about Nottingham’s journey showed there was a 15.9% improvement in the employment rate of the council’s care leavers, from 50% in 2014/15 to 65.9% in 2016/17.
The number of children in care who offended in 2015 was a third of the number who offended in 2006, and all of the council’s internal residential provision was rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
For Blackman, the success is built on what she felt Nottingham possessed in 2014: a gifted workforce, strong political commitment and a stable leadership team.
“Our biggest change was to recognise the enormous strength we had and build on that as one whole system with an aspiration to make a difference to children.”
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