In an old classroom, today used as a training room, Tracey Cusack is unfurling a ball of string as she walks across a circle of people. Narrating her is Becci, a young advisor to Doncaster children’s services trust, who has grown up in care.
With every new person Becci names from a young person’s account of what it’s like to be in the care system, Cusack, a participation officer, hands the string to another member of the circle, eventually creating a complicated, entangled web of which Cusack stands in the middle.
The purpose is for those in the room, some social workers but also administration and business support officers from both the trust and parts of Doncaster council, to understand the number of people involved in a young person’s life.
This exercise, one of many delivered through the day of ‘Hear Me’ training is one example of how Doncaster children’s services trust puts young people at the centre of its services.
Becci and Fanso are two of the trust’s seven young advisors. Their tasks include participating in training and interview panels for new social workers, attending corporate parenting panels, and suggesting changes to how the trust operates.
“We’re the mouthpiece of young people. If they are having issues or they want to talk about something that needs to change in the organisation, they bring that to us and we forward it to Tracey and Paul,” explains Fanso.
Paul Moffat, chief executive of the trust, says the organisation wanted to engage children and young people in a different way. “We wanted to not only ensure the voice of the children was heard through case work, but also through the planning of and reshaping of services.”
Young people have changed the culture of services in Doncaster by being visible, making representations, speaking at conferences and engaging with politicians, he says.
This, among many factors, was crucial to how children’s services in Doncaster stepped away from its history and embraced the people it works with as part of its future.
Doncaster children’s services trust launched in 2014 following years of high-profile problems in the council-run children’s services.
It was the first of its kind – a government-enforced, independent organisation set up to run children’s services on behalf of the council.
The model was followed, both voluntarily and not, and in slightly different guises, by other local authorities across the country. As the government put more weight behind alternative delivery models and innovation as the future of social work, you could argue the pressure on Doncaster children’s services trust to succeed was greater than the need to provide good services for children and young people.
But Moffat says that never impacted on services: “On a day-by-day basis, the job just gets done. The politics of it is through the sector conversations, conference conversations, meetings with the Department for Education, with the council. Those things happen, [but] they don’t detract from the work of the council, the health partners, the schools and trust staff.”
Once established, the trust set itself the ambitious target of being rated ‘outstanding’ by 2019. In 2015, a year into operations, it was rated ‘inadequate’ due to the quality of child protection services, despite improvements elsewhere.
Two years later it was time to welcome inspectors back, with the outcome far more positive as the trust achieved a ‘good’ rating overall. The report commented that young advisors were “excellent” at holding the trust to account, and the participation and influence of care leavers demonstrated young people “were at the heart of the service”.
Following the inspection, the government announced the trust would join its Partners in Practice scheme comprised of ‘good’ rated children’s services encouraged to develop good practice and share it with struggling services.
The first step of the journey was to have all frontline manager positions filled permanently, as soon as possible, says Pauline Turner, head of safeguarding and the trust’s principal social worker.
This was aided by ensuring a stable senior leadership team.
Turner says: “You have to remember that for a long time in Doncaster frontline staff had a range of managers who have come and gone and that has made them a bit wary.
“Whenever people have committed to Doncaster, I think that gives staff more confidence that people are here to try and get us to good and have made that commitment to take us to the future.”
She says since the trust was launched it has converted up to 24 agency workers into permanent staff. Once the workforce was in place, the next step was for the trust to know its staff.
Moffat says around 90% of frontline staff transferred from the council, and it was necessary to conduct a “skills audit” to assess strengths and weaknesses in practice.
“We didn’t go for a mass clear-out [of social workers]. What we were very clear about is there had been poor management, leadership and systems oversight, and that’s where we put our efforts to turn things around, at the same time supporting staff to develop their skills through training and development programmes and recognising the importance of the work they did.”
The trust established “seven keys to good practice” to promote consistency. Turner says management churn had left social workers not knowing how they were supposed to do an assessment, because the demands of managers constantly changing left them unsure about approaching it, and this needed to be rectified.
“I don’t think for a very long time anybody had been very clear with social workers what the basics were. Social workers helped us to establish them, define them.”
Building these foundations for good practice reaped rewards in Ofsted’s latest report, which said social work practice in the trust had been able to “flourish”. Part of achieving this, Turner explains, has been engaging staff on some of the more bureaucratic parts of their work, to highlight their value.
“Helping social workers take care of the things they write down changes the culture because they know there’s a reason to it, rather than it just being another thing on their to-do list, so they put care and effort into it. So, they really listen to children, they are not just saying ‘well I’ve been to that house, I’ve seen all the children’, they are having meaningful conversations with them.
“That means social workers can use their skills and be the change agent they need to be for that child, and can persuade parents and partners that ‘this is what we need to do for this child, I’ve heard it from their mouth’.”
Visibility of young people
At the centre of the changes achieved has been the children.
Moffat explains: “What staff have reported is that they like the visibility of leadership, but actually the visibility of the young people in the organisation has changed the dynamic and the way in which people think about involving children and young people. They are involved in so many different things we do now, it is the norm, not the exception.”
A major change is in the configuration of care leaver services. Turner says care leavers worked with the trust on its financial offer and support, but it was their argument that getting leaving care services at 18 was “far too late” that led to the most radical change.
“We have configured all of our services so children still have their social worker, but they get allocated their personal advisor to help them in that transition from 15 and three quarters.” Turner explains.
Head of the inspiring futures and youth offending service Andy Hood adds that on any day on his walk through the office he might be stopped by four or five young people who want to talk to him about how services can be improved.
Hood adds: “Our sickness rate has never been lower, people can’t wait to come into work because the work they are doing with young people is meaningful and has demonstrable outcomes, and those relationships are real, and who doesn’t want to work in an environment like that?”
Meanwhile Nev Brown, a team manager for inspiring futures, tells how he has fit contact with care leavers around his personal life, making call outs as late as 8pm.
“I’m not doing anything Andy wouldn’t do, and my staff know they wouldn’t do anything I wouldn’t do. The core hours of 9-5, it’s OK for your children and young people who are looked after, but care leavers don’t operate 9-5. Often they’re OK then, it’s that 8-midnight, Saturdays and Sundays [that they need support]. I think the future for social care is to strongly look at that.”
As well as ensuring standards were set out and met, stabilising management and assuaging any concern over the new model, the trust took extra measures to engage frontline staff from its launch. Regular summits, staff surveys and staff awards, where colleagues nominate each other, are just some initiatives.
At the most recent of these awards ceremonies Leonie Hegedus, from the children in care team, won social worker of the year.
Team manager Lisa Henshaw took home the award for team manager of the year.
“I’ve worked in social care since I was 18 years old. To have my staff put me forward…Having that recognition and acknowledgement is just wonderful, and I think other people see that and think they want a bit of that,” Henshaw says.
Moffat says there’s “no doubt” recognising staff has improved morale, reduced sickness and helped retention.
“It’s a resilient organisation. The health and wellbeing of an organisation can be assessed by the sickness levels, turnover, retention, and they’ve all gone off the map.
“You can’t overstate that, because if staff feel supported and as though they are recognised and valued for the work they are doing I think it affects their emotional and physical wellbeing.”
Hegedus and Henshaw are well placed to see the changes since the trust was launched. Hegedus has been in Doncaster for five years, since her first year in practice, and Henshaw transferred to the trust before beginning a year’s maternity leave a week after it launched.
On returning, she says it was “worlds apart” from where the council service was.
“In the first year of being employed [in the council] I had nine different service managers, there was never any sense of commitment or leadership because the leadership was always changing.”
They see the changes on the frontline now though, with clear expectations set out to staff, a shared vision and strong leadership, which Henshaw believes “makes a massive difference” to taking people on the journey.
Hegedus highlights the distribution of the workforce into localities across the town as a major step forward.
“We went into four localities, which we are still working in. The management structure that was created when we moved into the trust was a lot better. There were more visible permanent managers, permanent heads of service, and that was beneficial for me as a social worker, for my families.
“There’s a lot more willingness to allow us as social workers to have time to actually do things with our kids, so I’m able to do life story work, and prioritise time in my diary for that work for young children.”
Knowing itself well was key for the trust to improve. The skills audit outlined the journey for the workforce, but developing a more robust and up-to-date understanding of performance data was a crucial element of beginning to improve the experience of children and families.
Marcus Needham, the trust’s performance manager, leads a team focused on using performance data to improve practice. Central to this has been developing a system that allows managers non-stop access to performance data.
Henshaw says this information is “gold dust” to help her manage her team. “Social workers, initially, were quite worried by the level of performance data we were putting in place, but now they are excited to see it and have the conversations with you [about it].”
Members of the performance data team travel to each locality once a month, sit down with managers and heads of service and identify trends and issues to be addressed.
Henshaw adds: “It gives you a baseline from which to work. I use performance data in individual supervision with my staff to help them understand what they need to do and how that impacts in terms of our key performance indicators.”
Thoroughly collecting data helps improve social work practice, Needham explains, adding that indicators relate directly to the child’s experiences. He says if a professional doesn’t see a child alone during an assessment it makes recording their voice more difficult, and making that data visible helps improve practice.
“By making that visible you’re saying – you visited the child, but you didn’t see them alone.”
“Then, if you do go and see them alone, that helps with your narrative when writing the assessment.”
He says the development of the data and its use in practice was influenced by young people.
“My team is child focused. We have representation on voice groups, we’ve worked with care leavers, the children in care council, to look at performance. It’s not just having a visit, it’s having a visit that is meaningful and a system where they can record the child’s voice and it be clear where the child’s voice is in that data.”
Building for the future
The voices of children will continue to be a part of the trust’s future.
Becci and Fanso explain, as they approach the end of their tenure as young advisors and make university plans, that part of their role is supporting young advisors of the future.
“Two years ago, it wasn’t part of [Becci’s] plan to go to university,” Cusack says. “The young advisor role is about building confidence and planning for success, so we always have these kids coming through and changing things.”
An innovation of Becci’s was for the trust to sell the Hear Me training, delivered free to trust staff, to partner agencies and local businesses. She worked with the trust’s financial officer to build a business plan and pitched it to Moffat.
The money made is kept in a fund called ‘Becci’s bursary’, which is used to buy books and support other care leavers into university to study social care, where she is going in September to train as a social worker.
Its not just their personal situations and ability to generate change which has shifted since the trust was established, but the situations of children in care.
“Young people’s voices have been taken more into account, things are taken seriously now. If you request something, we can see the change in a short space of time,” says Fanso.
Becci adds: “First it was us telling them stuff, now they are coming to us. They go to all different kids and young people who have an opinion and ask for it.
“It didn’t used to be like that.”