Last week, Ofsted inspectors gave social workers and colleagues in Reading’s children’s services some much-needed good news.
Since it was rated ‘inadequate’ by inspectors in August 2016, the authority has been in government intervention, and plans to transfer the service to a new company owned by the council were announced earlier this year, with an expected launch of September 2018.
Returning Ofsted visits since last August 2016 have lamented progress as being “too slow”, and that there was not a consistent position from the senior management team about how to improve services.
However, an Ofsted monitoring inspection last week praised “substantial progress”. It highlighted the impact of early help work, and the understanding of thresholds in its new single point of access service.
Ofsted singled out ‘Beyond Auditing’, a new method of quality assurance and engaging with cases, as highly valued by frontline workers and helping create a learning culture in Reading.
‘Beyond Auditing’ is an audit that takes place on active cases with the social worker, their manager and a full-time ‘beyond auditor’, interim director of children’s services at Reading council Ann Marie Dodds tells Community Care.
The process is like reflective supervision, she adds, but it doesn’t replace one-on-one management supervision or auditing after cases have finished. The beyond auditors are made up of experienced social workers, former managers and even former Ofsted inspectors. The cases are graded along the same lines as traditional audits.
Dodds says the process allows social workers “to be learning, reflecting and improving their practice with an additional set of eyes on their case, helping them understand how they could do things different, how they could improve it in real time”.
She says the process was brought on in a bid to bring “pace” to Reading’s improvements.
“We looked at [our improvement journey] at the beginning of the year and we realised we can do all of the usual things in terms of recruiting a permanent staff, managing caseloads and doing all the [things] Ofsted want you to do – but we figured we needed to do something else,” Dodds says.
Traditional auditing programmes often look at cases a significant period after they’ve been worked on or closed, while this gets alongside the social worker in the process, Dodds explains.
“When they are going through the audit of the case they are pointing out what they can do differently, and understand why we’ve done it so you get reflection about all elements of the case while the case is live,” Dodds says.
‘Praise social worker improvement’
After a beyond auditing session, the case will be tracked see if it is being better managed, and to see the social workers’ improvement, Dodds says. This puts the council in the position of being able to single out and praise improvement.
“It is tough in an ‘inadequate’ authority. People are told frequently by the media, Ofsted or the [council] members that what you’re doing is not good enough. It is refreshing to see ‘these things you’ve done are really good, these things are making a difference to kids’, and that’s motivating.
“It’s helping us then drive a learning culture where we can recognise that even in the good cases there is always something else we can do, or there are other ways of doing things,” Dodds explains.
Dodds says the new auditing regime is part of the shift to an outcomes-based, accountability model for its improvement journey and trying to create an ongoing learning culture.
“When there is so much that needs to shift and so much that needs to change it’s difficult. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, it is difficult to see you are getting better.
“Having beyond auditors to help [social workers] reflect and understand what they are doing on the cases…[is] there to help us motivate the workforce that they want to keep doing the right things for kids,” Dodds says.
Dodds is delighted with Ofsted’s praise, and hopes it gives people a different impression of what is happening at the council, but while inspectors liked ‘Beyond Auditing’, she insists it is just “one element” of the council’s improvement.
“It is more about the culture and the social workers in it,” she says.