Since its launch in 2014, Achieving for Children (AfC) has increased the number of local authorities in its umbrella by one third.
Granted, in numbers that reflects adding a third children’s services (Windsor & Maidenhead) to the two (Kingston and Richmond) already in its portfolio, but that’s not the sum of the previously unheard-of model’s growth in the sector.
Another community interest company has followed in Sunderland, with external models being developed in Worcestershire, Reading and Northamptonshire to join the already launched ones in Sandwell, Slough, Doncaster and Birmingham.
AfC has been at the centre of the government’s partners in practice, which sees it share learning, and become an improvement partner for struggling authorities across the country.
Similarly, its own position as a community interest company has enabled AfC to sell its services as a consultancy in social work and education matters to other services. Future plans include the launch of a recruitment service that would see permanent AfC employees operate as agency staff in local authorities it is supporting.
While AfC sees its reach grow and the debate about the success of alternative delivery models continues alongside it, its local services have continued to move from strength to strength.
Kingston children’s services, rated ‘inadequate’ when AfC took over, is now rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, while an inspection of Richmond children’s services late last year also achieved a ‘good’ rating.
AfC’s cluster model, operating in Kingston and Richmond, is a way of organising protection, early help and children’s social care services. There are now three multi-disciplinary clusters of teams working in a defined geographical area, and central teams which work across the whole of Kingston and Richmond.
Fiona Rowe, an ASYE social worker in the North East cluster’s referral and assessment team, says the smaller locations do not stop social workers from working across the two boroughs, adding that managers from different areas are in constant communication so that, if duty demand is such that a service area needs more support, other teams can go into do that.
Meanwhile Sarah Day, a social worker on her assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in the South cluster’s referral and assessment team, said the localised model makes social workers “feel like we’re part of the community”.
“We’re slap bang in the middle, and because [the base was] originally a school and a centre for children with disabilities it is really child friendly. Inviting families there is brilliant because there are child-friendly rooms, rooms with toys. Its really welcoming for children.”
Samantha Harvey, head of safeguarding for the West cluster, thinks the relationship between social workers and the community will only grow because of the model.
“You’ll really get to know your local community, professionals and schools, which is hard to do in a bigger borough where you’re much more spread out, so hopefully that will have benefits for families.”
The clusters are also multi-disciplinary, which has proved beneficial for social work teams looking to enhance skills, and generally just simplify the working process.
Sam Taylor, an ASYE in the South cluster’s referral and assessment team, says: “It’s really useful just to have all these different professionals in the room with you, because even if you don’t know who they are you can just walk over and discuss a case they are both working on.”
“I had education welfare come over to me and say they were working with the same family as me, and I said: ‘Ok, what are you doing?’ That little conversation takes five minutes rather than having to track someone down. Just having someone in the room so you can work together to make things better for the child makes it so much easier.”
As this more local model has been developed, AfC’s position on a national scale has grown.
Since 2014, it has done improvement work in 16 local authorities, seven as a Department for Education improvement partner or commissioner, and the rest through arrangements organised directly with others.
Despite this workload, associate director for business development and communications Joel Hartfield says the service turns down more external work than it takes on.
On further growth, he explains, the next period for AfC should be one of “consolidation”.
“It is a massive undertaking, bringing two boroughs together and then bringing another council on board, and we want to consolidate Windsor and Maidenhead as part of the company first before looking elsewhere.”
AfC delivers most of the improvement work to partner services in house, which it achieves by offering training opportunities to its existing workforce, encompassing senior managers and frontline social workers, who then go out on secondments to see how other areas work, what they can contribute and what they can take from it.
“By the time the training has finished I’m hoping we’d have about 50 staff we regularly use,” Hartfield says, adding that word of mouth was “really important” in getting more frontline social workers to take on the role.
“I think people didn’t know what it meant or what it involved, but actually as more and more people have got involved and spent a few more days in [other areas], they’ve been involved in the work and been really positive that they have learned a lot themselves.”
Kingston’s journey from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ is a key selling point for other authorities, Hartfield explains, because staff have experienced the work needed to get to that level.
No resistance to change
David Glover, head of referral and assessment in the West cluster, says social workers taking part in improvement work across the country is managed by planning in advance and timely recruitment to cover any gaps.
“One of my close friends is currently out seconded within another local area and he reports back it’s a much more positive experience than he’d anticipate it to be. He’s not seeing people resistant to change. There’s a real openness to work with us as partners.”
Improvement work also brings with it extra funding, either from the government asking AfC to do it or from other services commissioning it. Because of the nature of community interest companies, any money is locked within the service, so it has been able to use the extra funding to protect the frontline.
“Where some teams have been at threat of losing a post or two because of budget cuts, we’ve been able to protect from some of that because of the income that is coming in, so it is making a tangible difference,” Hartfield explains.
“Its not enough to stave off all of the ongoing financial crises, but it certainly helps and puts us in a stronger position than some other areas that aren’t able to generate that much income themselves.”
The money has also been used to invest in AfC staff. “We’ve been able to fund training for more systemic family therapists using the money we’ve generated from external work, because it is expensive to train your own people to work in that way but its something we committed to, and we’ve been able to up the number of people we’ve trained as a result of external work,” Hartfield explains.
Premium on recruitment and retention
On top of developing staff to work elsewhere, AfC has put a premium on recruitment, development and retention.
Julia Becker, a consultant social worker who works with the service’s Frontline students, says the first thing she noticed following the changes was “much better, much broader” training.
Becker, who has worked in Kingston for 18 years, says “they still manage to find training at a level for very experienced workers which I thought was lacking before”.
This sentiment is echoed by Glover, who joined AfC after it was launched amid colleagues questioning the place he was joining. “I don’t really know why that was, I wonder if it was practitioners fearing change or doing things differently or maybe not being open.”
“I feel like I’ve been invested in [since joining], I’ve come with individual training requests and certainly feel as a new manager I’ve had the enhanced supervision I think I needed.”
To successfully recruit social workers, AfC has “recruitment champions”, social workers and managers, who handle the interview and recruitment process to help ensure the right choice for both the company and the employee, and it has been a big part of converting agency staff into permanent.
Cassey Spratt, head of referral and assessment in the North Cluster, who joined AfC as an agency social worker before going permanent and becoming a recruitment champion, says she sits in management meetings where all participants were permanent employees, something she had never seen before.
“There is a promotion of people that are good and want to do well,” she says.
Gill Goouch, associate director for workforce, says part of recruitment is using the freedom the organisation enjoys outside of the local authority to offer different benefits to social workers, and think particularly about professional development schemes.
Initial conversations with applicants are about what it means to work for AfC, what opportunities it can offer them, and here recruitment champions play an important role.
“In the past maybe [those responsibilities] sat with our HR teams who didn’t have that in-depth knowledge,” Goouch explains.
Successfully retaining social workers is managed by being “responsive” and using the size of AfC to offer social workers new opportunities as there are more areas for them to work in.
“It’s [about] not looking at linear approaches to career progression. What opportunities are there for staff who are experienced, want to stay in the organisation, but also want to enhance their own roles?”
Recruitment is an area, Goouch says, where staff were engaged early on to help improve the process. Staff put themselves in the shoes of prospective employees to help AfC finesse their recruitment process, and staff engagement is an important part of AfC’s workforce culture.
Authorities taking part in Partners in Practice get extra funding to trial new ways of working they can then share with areas in need of improvement. The funding has meant that AfC can begin working with authorities requiring improvement, rather than just areas where the service has fallen on very hard times.
It’s through this funding it will launch AfC Prime, its recruitment scheme which would see social workers employed full time by AfC but placed in local authorities it works with which are struggling with retention.
Speed of change
The government’s agenda around alternative delivery models means ways of delivering children’s services that didn’t exist five years ago now have a major role in social work practice across the country.
The speed of that change, how it is being adopted by local authorities across the country when, there have been few full-Ofsted inspections of services, will continue to draw concerns and suspicions from the sector.
In Kingston and Richmond though, inspectors have given it their approval, saying the model had “added value” to services.
Spratt says when she told someone she was going to an interview at AfC, they said “Oh don’t go there, they are doing that weird thing where they have been bought out by someone”.
“I was a bit put off by that, but I came to the interview, and I don’t think people understand, outside of AfC, what it means and what it looks like.”
Taylor says the past four years have involved a lot of change, but it has been for the better, and the implications aren’t ones he considers regularly.
“It’s not something I’ve been consciously thinking about when working with families. You’re just doing your job like you would do anywhere else but you’re doing it in a way that allows innovation and encourages progression as a professional as well.”
Spaces to innovate
Rob Henderson, deputy chief executive and director of children’s services, says one of the first things AfC did was bureaucracy busting – asking staff to tell them what they didn’t need anymore and scrap it.
“We tried to clear a lot of clutter to free up staff and focus on children, families, direct work.”
This was experienced by Heidi Margetts, a team leader in referral and assessment in the South Cluster, who joined the organisation recently.
“In my first week I was really surprised. I went to the performance meeting and there were discussions about little things on the IT system that holds social workers up and make them jump over hurdles, click things, and in my previous authority there would be things we talked about month after month and it would never get changed. In that meeting I remember walking away thinking ‘wow’ because somebody said ‘yeah we can change that, or take that off, add that identity’, and so it was quick.”
AfC’s innovation hub and staff council have been key forces in creating a sense of ownership among frontline staff. The innovation hub includes initiatives such as designing a project that would improve outcomes for at least 10 children at a small cost – these ideas are then voted on by staff and taken forward. Meanwhile the staff council leads on social events, staff surveys and addressing issues.
But the opportunities for staff to lead on initiatives are not limited to the staff council or innovation hub. Glover says: “I was using my supervision forum to discuss with my associate director some frustrations we’ve been having with particular service areas, and I’m now given the freedom to go off and invest in those relationships and try to set up forums.”