How a council with up to 80% agency social work staff created a stable workforce

Inspectors applaud a children's services' 'outstanding' leadership and note improvements to most areas of social work practice

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Ofsted inspectors have lauded the “significant improvements” made at an outer London borough, which have seen its children’s services achieve a ‘good’ judgment, with the impact of leaders on social work practice rated ‘outstanding’.

Last time it was inspected, in 2013, Hillingdon council was rated ‘requires improvement’, with Ofsted identifying a series of issues including around the quality of assessments and plans, and the uneven application of thresholds.

But at the latest visit, conducted over two weeks in mid-April, inspectors found a “child-centred approach woven into strategic and operational decision-making”, marked by “comprehensive assessments and high-quality plans” and “consistent” thresholds.

Interviewed by Community Care, social work bosses hailed the “virtuous circle” that had been enabled by strategic investment underpinning a drop in staff turnover, which had previously seen agency rates of up to 80%.

Stability ‘fundamental’

David Simmonds, Hillingdon’s longstanding cabinet member for children’s services, said there had been “lots of reorganisation” at the council since the last time Ofsted’s inspectors had come calling.

He singled out the qualities of the director of social care, Tony Zaman, whose role previously focused on adults’ services, combined with support from senior elected members and the chief executive’s office, as being the bedrock for improvements.

“[Those factors have] helped stabilise staffing, and that has enabled Tony to secure some exceptional managerial and practice leaders to join the organisation,” Simmonds said. “This combination of things has ended up being a virtuous circle.”

Simmonds added that workforce stability was “absolutely fundamental” to practice getting better. Ofsted said social workers were “tenacious, skilled and thoughtful” and looked forward to developing their careers at the London borough.

“Early on we identified that to get to a place in which Hillingdon was somewhere social workers wanting to come, we needed to invest in getting caseloads to a manageable level,” he said. “We brought in extra capacity [both in terms of admin and case management ‘overspill’ support] from outside private organisations to make sure we could meet that commitment to [staff] social workers.”

Zaman told Community Care that permanent staff rates, recorded at 62% on 30 September 2017 by the last set of government statistics, were now approaching 80%. But he added that during Hillingdon’s improvement journey, agency workers’ average length of tenure had also been growing, meaning that even children who were not allocated a permanent staff member generally got “continuity, not just handoff from one to another”.

‘Timely and comprehensive’ casework

Compared with the previous Ofsted visit, inspectors found far more solidity around casework, which they criticised for its inconsistency in 2013.

“The vast majority of assessments are timely, comprehensive and of good quality – they provide succinct evidence of risks to children and clear analysis,” inspectors said. “Plans for children in need of help and protection are a significant strength and are of excellent quality.”

Zaman said that besides the drop in staff turnover, better scrutiny of work – whether by managers, elected members, Ofsted at routine meetings, or by children and young people – was a key factor in the tightening up.

“Rather than just having strong performance management frameworks and information it’s the rigour of testing, so it’s much more outcome-based rather than just getting measures of things,” he said.

“We have taken a step back to ensure all our casework effort is in achieving outcomes,” Zaman continued. “The quality of planning is at centre of that – we have pathway plans for children in care where they write their own plans, we support them, and there’s a resonance in [positive] commentary from the judiciary.”

One aspect of practice that inspectors focused on was the council’s Hillingdon access to resources panel (HARP), which was established to bring in consistency and oversight to decision-making, but has evolved to encompass a broader remit. “The panel appropriately considers a broad range of service requests to meet children’s needs, for example escalation to legal planning meetings and additional funding to support therapeutic intervention for children with complex needs,” Ofsted said.

Zaman said the panel was now the “most significant learning environment for practitioners [at the council] – talking about planning in their cases, there are some really impressive exchanges about, ‘Is this the right thing, at this time, and for how long should we do it?’

“[It’s now] more of a challenge about how we achieve outcomes for children, rather than just being about resources,” Zaman said. “We’ve always taken the approach that if you get those things right, efficiencies will follow.”

Criticisms ‘covered off’

Ofsted identified a number of areas in which practice at Hillingdon could be further improved, including the timeliness and quality of return-home interviews for missing children, and of permanence plans. Inspectors also said that children in care’s understanding of their rights to complain and around advocacy could be better.

Zaman acknowledged that ensuring plans were timely and effective was a “continuous improvement point”. But he said that all specific issues raised by Ofsted had been “genuinely dealt with” before inspectors left the building.

Simmonds added that the challenges of operating in London were “keeping people on their toes”. He gave the example of the recent rise in violent crime experienced by many London boroughs, which was putting pressure on youth offending services and giving pause for thought around the commissioning of youth services more generally.

But he said he felt the local authority was heading in a “settled” direction.

“We are stable and well-managed,” Simmonds said. “That hopefully enables the leaders to make plans for staffing and for young people that are not based on, we might have to tear all this up next year.”

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