Council drives down agency staff reliance as it moves away from ‘inadequate’ rating

Reducing agency staff rates by more than half, implementing a new practice model and investing in the frontline helps one North East council move forward

A local authority that has slashed its agency rate to 7% in 15 months has been praised by Ofsted for its improvements to workforce stability and development alongside “dynamic” senior leadership.

Darlington council has been rated ‘requires improvement to be good’ in its latest Ofsted inspection, published last week.

The rating, up from the council’s ‘inadequate’ performance in 2015, highlighted improvements in performance management, effective leadership, and improved workforce stability following a prioritisation on the recruitment and retention of frontline staff.

Darlington council’s director of children’s and adults’ service Suzanne Joyner, in an interview with Community Care, says the council has significantly reduced its reliance on agency staff, with a number becoming permanently employed at Darlington.

The council currently has a 7% agency rate, down from the 37% recorded in a February 2017 monitoring visit, which Joyner said was a “peak”.

Region ‘pulled together’

Joyner, who has led a North East regional recruitment strategy, says the region has “pulled together” in its bid to stop churn and control agency staff costs.

The strategy included the introduction of a region-wide cap on agency day rates and the ‘Put your heart into social work in the North East’ recruitment drive, which saw representatives from North East councils at recruitment fairs across the country.

While Joyner acknowledges that “agency staff have a place and a value”, there was a strategy to recruit some of the council’s agency workforce into permanent roles.

“We were telling agency workers [capped rates are] going to come; and [asked] if you want to become permanent and work for Darlington what would make it a viable option?

“I think once they came into Darlington and they settled they could see our style and the culture that we’re trying to move to – very supportive, always having our eye on caseloads, good workforce development and training opportunities – that started to support people to make those decisions to move to us.”

Data and performance

Ofsted highlighted Darlington’s performance management as having “improved markedly”.

“With performance being discussed in supervision, team meetings, monthly performance clinics and quarterly assurance days, there is a much greater recognition, and sense of ownership, of the significance and importance of data. The local authority is well on the way to developing a comprehensive performance culture,” Ofsted said.

Joyner called the developments a “game changer”.

“We had a poor case management system and you couldn’t manipulate data very easily. Now I’ve got data at my fingertips, but it’s one thing having data – if you don’t drive it and use it, then it’s not going to make a difference.”

The council’s performance ‘clinics’ – held with heads of service, but also with the council’s chief executive – assesses performance data down at the team level. “That’s the finger on the pulse bit – really understanding that and being able to drill all the way through,” Joyner says.

Management challenge ‘not consistent’

Ofsted said there was more to be done in terms of quality of practice, though the council’s “relentless focus on compliance” meant children were being seen “promptly and regularly”, with “no children [having been] found in situations of unassessed or unmanaged risk”.

Darlington is also implementing the Signs of Safety framework. “The inspectors told us we needed to do more on our practice model, and we knew that. That’s part of our ongoing journey, continuing to roll that out, get it embedded so it helps social workers to construct their assessments using that Signs of Safety model, and you have to work through an implementation plan to do that,” Joyner says.

“The further improvement is about how we get the sharpness of the assessment and the plans. Our assessments and plans are very detailed, and our next steps are working through that to be able to pull those things through so you can see succinctly what the plan for a child is.”

Inspectors felt frontline managers and independent reviewing officers (IROs) were not “consistently effective in providing critical challenge about the quality of work or ensuring timely progression”.

Joyner says the council is working to make sure there is the “right recording” of what IROs are challenging.

“The challenge is happening, the IRO voice is there, but it’s making sure we evidence it. We’re working with them to make sure they can get the right support and systems and what they need to be able to do that effectively. [Managers and IROs are] a vital tier. The platforms are there, it’s just that it’s not consistent across the board – and we’ll look at where it is consistent, learning from good practice.”

Senior leadership

The senior leadership team was praised by Ofsted for its “significant progress”, which had “ensured that the management of children’s services is now much more rigorous and effective”.

“Senior managers have had considerable success in improving recruitment and retention. Workforce development is strong. Staff turnover has reduced considerably. However, families have yet to feel the full benefit of increased workforce stability,” inspectors said.

Joyner highlights as a significant benefit the political and corporate support for the council’s children’s services, and the investment in frontline resources. “I’d got people wanting to support me, and prioritise children’s services, and give me additional resources – that helped me to get the caseloads managed and bring those down.”

“We used that investment to focus on additional social work capacity, so we could manage caseloads more effectively. It’s then a knock on – if you can get your caseloads manageable you can start building your reputation as an employer and it gives you the hooks to start stabilising the workforce. I would say that politically and corporately – across the council and partners – putting children at the heart of what we do and really wrapping around that has been key to moving on.”

“Our emphasis on Ofsted was that we know ourselves and they have absolutely confirmed that we do. There were no surprises, so our continued improvement journey is very much about driving it and pushing it to the next level and refocusing, but carrying on as well.”

Then and now: Darlington’s journey to ‘requires improvement’

Area of service Ofsted inspection findings 2015 Ofsted inspection findings 2018
Children who need help and protection Inadequate: This inspection identified a high number of assessments that were not completed within timescales agreed by managers, and too many children were therefore left in situations of unassessed risk Requires improvement: There have been significant improvements in the timeliness of completing assessments, although some pre-birth assessments are completed too near to the time of birth to allow for considered planning with, and preparation for, parents. The majority of assessments are too lengthy and descriptive, lacking clear analysis
Children looked after and receiving permanence Requires improvement: Services for children looked after are not yet good. Independent reviewing officers’ (IROs) oversight of plans, including the need to secure timely permanence plans, is not sufficiently robust Requires improvement: Services for children looked after continue to require improvement to be good, as at the last inspection, although good services for children who are adopted and for care leavers have been sustained and further improved
Adoption performance Good: A significant proportion of looked after children are being adopted and increasing numbers of adopters are being recruited Good: Children who need an adoptive placement are identified without delay and are placed with their permanent families promptly. The service is particularly good at placing older children for adoption
Experiences and progress of care leavers Good: Young people value continuity highly, and it reflects the stability of staff and managers, who know young people and their histories well Good:The service for care leavers has further developed since the last inspection, and positive action has been taken to respond to almost all areas identified to improve in June 2015
Leadership, management and governance Inadequate: Leadership, management and governance are inadequate because of a serious failure by senior leaders to take oversight of, and accountability for, Darlington’s services to vulnerable children Requires improvement: Senior managers have had considerable success in improving recruitment and retention. Workforce development is strong. The local authority now has fewer vacancies, is less reliant on agency staff and is starting to attract experienced social workers
Overall judgement Inadequate: Managers at all levels of the organisation do not have sufficient grip or oversight of front-line practice for children who need help and protection. Requires improvement: Senior leaders know the services, the quality of social care practice and improvement priorities well and have responded promptly to findings on this inspection. Persistent and wide-ranging approaches have successfully improved workforce stability, capacity and development.

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One Response to Council drives down agency staff reliance as it moves away from ‘inadequate’ rating

  1. Wendy Medd May 31, 2018 at 10:54 pm #

    Brilliant news well done Darlington 🌟