In 2003 senior social worker Steph How packed her bags and said goodbye to the Midlands.
She was six years into her career and about to move more than 100 miles south to start a new job in Hampshire County Council’s children and families’ service.
“I had decided to look for a new job and began searching the country for a local authority I would like to live in but would also enable me to continue my social work career,” she recalls.
Finding that new workplace was, she says, “very much a pin-in-the-map” process. She looked across the Midlands, to the North, to the South.
“I was looking everywhere. Looking through local authorities’ children and young people plans, examining their service priorities and Ofsted ratings.”
Eventually she homed in on Hampshire. “I grew up in Hampshire but it wasn’t necessarily about coming home for me. I was only six years into my career and I was mindful of where I wanted my career to go and the opportunities I wanted.”
Hampshire appealed to Steph for several reasons. It had a strong Ofsted rating and a clear commitment to growing its social workers through its dedicated workforce development team. “Training and development was real hearts-and-minds stuff in Hampshire,” she says.
Then there was the sheer size of the county. “I was struck by how large a local authority Hampshire is. In smaller local authorities the opportunities to develop your career are more limited.
“A large council like Hampshire offered more opportunity for greater experiences – not just up and down the organisational ranks but across too. Hampshire has eight districts so there are more teams and more opportunities to move around. That was really important for me.”
Another attraction was the stability of the senior leadership team in children’s services. “That was essential,” Steph says. “We all know that the local authorities where you can practice and develop safely have strong, stable leadership teams who know their services and their staff well.
“We’ve all seen those local authorities where there’s a change in director every nine or ten months and, invariably, they are not local authorities that are good with outstanding features like Hampshire is.”
That stability is just as evident today as it was in 2003. Since Steph joined Hampshire as a senior social worker, the director of children’s services has changed just twice.
First in 2005 when John Coughlan became director of children’s services, then again in 2015 when John became Hampshire’s chief executive and the service’s deputy director Steve Crocker replaced him. Stuart Ashley, then area director and also a long-serving Hampshire manager, was then promoted to Steve’s post as assistant director.
“That stability is so important,” Steph says. “Our senior leaders came up through children and families, they know the challenges social workers face.”
The greatest learning experience
Fifteen years after relocating to Hampshire, Steph has no regrets. The training and development opportunities that stood out in 2003 have transformed her career. She has risen through the ranks and six weeks ago became one of the council’s two area directors, overseeing children and families’ social work in the east of the county.
“Where I am now compared to where I was when I joined in 2003 indicates the investment Hampshire made in me,” she says. “I’ve had so many opportunities along the way.”
One of the greatest experiences, she says, was being part of the Hampshire team that went to the Isle of Wight in 2013 to help turn around the island’s inadequate-rated children’s services.
“It was one of the greatest learning experiences I will ever have,” she says. “The learning I got from that made me the senior manager I am today. The sector-led improvement work Hampshire does with other local authorities gives staff of all levels real learning opportunities.
“The learning and experience our social workers get from supporting other authorities is immeasurable.”
I’ve always felt safe here
But for Steph what made her 100-mile move to Hampshire back in 2003 the best decision of her career was the chance to work in a council where social workers can practice safely.
“As a practitioner and now as a manager too I felt safe,” she says. “As a social worker feeling you can practice safely in a supportive environment is absolutely essential. We’ve got really good multi-layered management oversight of our cases and so as a social worker you get really good and strong management of your cases and good and strong supervision.
“I’ve always felt safe here. The strong management oversight of cases made me feel – and I feel this very, very fiercely – that while I was accountable for my work it was work that was held by others as well.”