Staff in children’s services trust worried about level of scrutiny, evaluation finds

DfE-commissioned evaluation of a children’s services trust says lessons must be learned from early 'dysfunctional' relationship with council

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Taking an ‘inadequate’ children’s services department out of a council’s control has been a “catalyst” for improvements, but not a cure-all, an independent review has found.

The report into Slough Children’s Services Trust’s first two years found the organisation, set up after the local authority became the second to lose its children’s services, had established a “clear vision” and was stabilising its workforce.

Social workers interviewed for the review, commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), said the trust’s narrow focus on children – and on making services better – had helped forge a sense of common purpose.

But the study found widespread perceptions among staff that achieving “consistently high quality practice” would take a long while, with senior managers concerned they could not match the DfE’s expected pace of change.

The fears reflect the tone of two 2017 Ofsted monitoring reports, which said improvements at the trust – which remains ‘inadequate’ – were not happening fast enough. The watchdog’s latest visit, which took place in May, found leadership was improving but that practice remained variable.

The review noted that staff “from across the trust” were also worried that the level of scrutiny placed on the new organisation – and the associated admin – could itself be distracting from core objectives.

“Senior staff also reported the organisation faces extra layers of regulation and inspection, due to its status as an independent fostering agency (IFA) and voluntary adoption agency (VAA), [which] has placed further burden on it,” the review added.

‘Less disruption, more commitment’

Community Care visited Slough Children’s Services Trust in 2016 and interviewed social workers who were mostly pleased with the direction things were taking – and their opinions were echoed in the new review’s findings, which include:

  • The ‘hub’ model and systemic practice implemented in the wake of the trust being set up had contributed to improved direct work with children and families.
  • A flatter, less hierarchical management structure had led to a more nimble organisation, better able to enact change quickly, and with managers who are more accessible and approachable.
  • Workforce stability had improved, with agency numbers falling from 52% in 2015 to 32% in 2017 and staff describing “less disruption and more commitment”.
  • Performance management and quality assurance had improved “from a low base” to become “effective”.

But the review, as with Ofsted’s recent visits, found unevenness in terms of advances made by the trust.

Staff raised issues around the workings of the hub model, for example in terms of transfers between hubs leading to case drift, cases being unequally distributed between hubs – and practice differing from hub to hub. Long-established hubs were also found to be running more smoothly than those set up more recently, with some staff complaining that training resources had been focused in certain areas at the expense of others.

Meanwhile the trust’s multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) – while still at an early age of evolution – was found to be suffering from a “lack of clarity” among staff as to its role and functioning.

Specific issues were also highlighted around the quality of induction processes given to new staff at the trust, and around access to policy and procedure documents – which some staff said they “do not need ‘because I know how to do my job'”.

‘Us and them’ mentality

The review also highlighted a number of lessons from the trust’s early days, during which time its relationship with its parent body, Slough council, was described as “tense” and “dysfunctional”.

Different interpretations of contract management arrangements initially led to uncertainty around accountability and responsibility, and over the trust’s true level of independence, the report found.

“Contrary and sometimes conflicting views were expressed about who was, and should be, monitoring the progress of the trust and who was accountable for success and any failures,” it said. “This led to distraction from progress on the trust’s strategic priorities.”

The relationship between trust and council had “strengthened”, the review found, particularly in the wake of a new strategic director of children, learning and skills being appointed at the council

But it warned that the initial “us and them” mentality had been dangerously divisive, adding that it lingered among some operational staff, who felt they had been marginalised as being part of the old regime.

The review highlighted the need for “a constructive and collaborative relationship with the local authority” in order for trust models to thrive, adding that early-established organisational infrastructure and good communication were also key factors.

‘Work to be done’

Responding to the review, Slough Children’s Services Trust’s interim chief executive Andrew Bunyan said it had provided the organisation with an “ideal opportunity to benchmark our services”.

Bunyan added: “We’re under no illusions that there isn’t more work to be done, but we are confident our trajectory of improvement will continue, and we look forward to becoming recognised as a model for change and as an example of how to successfully transform services.”

The minister for children and families, Nadhim Zahawi, said the report demonstrated the hard work staff at the trust had put in to raise standards for vulnerable children and families.

“I am especially pleased to see that children have been put at the heart of its culture change and that they have invested substantially in the workforce, reducing staff turnover,” Zahawi said.

“I hope the learnings in this report are helpful in setting up children’s trusts in the future and that Slough continues its improvement journey so the needs of children and families are met effectively.

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