Two years ago, services for children in Liverpool was in need of a transition.
A Joint Targeted Area Inspection – while not carrying a graded judgement – had slammed the city’s response to children at risk of sexual exploitation, and according to Steve Reddy, the now director of children’s services, had confirmed to the council it was ‘inadequate’.
The council needed a change, and in October last year Reddy and a new assistant director were brought into oversee it.
Since then – a full Ofsted inspection published at the start of this month found – changes have begun to be felt. Services are in a position of requiring improvement to be ‘good’, the regulator said, but the new leadership team was praised for having made a “significant impact in a short space of time”.
It singled out Reddy for successfully making the case for extra resources to address “long-standing” capacity issues.
“This has meant that a new assistant director post for education has been created, and 16 additional social work posts have been put in place, some of which have been recruited to. He has improved the level of communication between senior leaders and frontline managers and staff and this is leading to a mood of cautious optimism,” the report said.
New framework for recruitment and retention
A new framework for recruiting, retaining and progressing social workers has been developed, and action has been taken to address the issue of newly qualified social workers lacking support.
Reddy himself feels the same optimism for the future as others, a sharp turnaround for a service he described as “under siege”.
While not “rocket science” Reddy’s first step was to start talking to frontline staff.
“It felt that the staff were also a little bit overwhelmed and not very motivated or optimistic, and I don’t think – it’s not easy to say this – the previous leadership were listening to staff,” he explains.
Reintroducing communication was a day one priority, with a monthly staff newsletter and a weekly email about the management meetings distributed among employees.
‘Crucial’ political support
Reddy adds as well that gaining political support has been crucial, and that has manifested itself in extra funding for the creation of 12 new social work posts, and an agency team brought in to help manage the high numbers of cases Liverpool has often struggled with.
“One of the most powerful things was I was given some feedback from the newly qualified social workers, so I got the mayor in the room with 25 of them and to be frank they gave it to them with both barrels.
“In management conferences, the mayor has described that meeting several times about how painful it was to hear staff had not been supported but he really has supported us and ensured we’ve taken very swift action.”
On getting extra funding in a time of strict budget constraints, Reddy explains that when you’re appointed as a director, and the council has decided you are the right candidate, they need to trust what you’re talking about.
“Being really honest, look at those councils that have fallen over or had a negative Ofsted inspection, and you’re talking £15-£20 million plus to dig yourselves out of that hole.
“Aside from people in our city deserving the best services, aside from that fundamental point that children need better support, look at the bill we get if we fail,” he says.
Accepting that reality has afforded the service some flexibility while it tries to turn itself around. “I overspent by six million last year. I went to the audit and corporate governance committee and said ‘this is why’ and they said ‘we understand, we get that, get a grip of it as soon as you can’.”
A perennial problem in Liverpool – and indeed many struggling services – is the workload of social workers. Remarked upon in the latest Ofsted report, caseloads are something Reddy is keen to address through extra recruitment, but has acknowledged the need for a more long-term solution.
“Fiona Waddington (the assistant director) is bringing in a workload management model which tries to capture the caseload and complexity of cases.
“We actually met some ASYEs and NQSWs and we’re talking about the programme we’re bringing in for them, we’ve appointed two new support officers specifically for them, we are going to talk to them specifically about what we want to do on caseloads, and say to them, that whatever we say for a particular team is the ideal, they will be operating at 80-90% of that because we want to try and protect their caseloads.”
Workload, not lack of skill
Reddy explains how workload is what creates inconsistent or poor quality practice, seen in Ofsted reports, not a lack of skill among social workers.
“When I was introduced to the job I said you’ve got 1,200 looked after children in Liverpool, I would say the reality is, even factoring in deprivation, you should be looking at 8-900 maximum, and with that level of workload, there’s too much work in the system to do high quality work. That’s the issue about consistency and that’s what you will see in any Ofsted report – we’ve found examples of good work but its not being done consistently enough, not because they don’t know what good looks like, but because they’ve got too much work to do.”
While there is still a long way to go – the Ofsted report acknowledges a systematic approach to improvements that has so far focused on the multi agency safeguarding hub and early help services – the listening to social workers is what Reddy thinks has started to make the most noticeable differences.
“Some of those very practical things: communication, seeing the director or assistant director, all those elements are things staff have fed back to us that makes us feel different,” Reddy explains.
He adds: “They are seeing us catch people doing the right things and celebrating that – which is really important – when you’re in an authority under a lot of pressure that has been inspected to death and had some negative feedback, the confidence drops, so its really important to say: ‘We know you’ve got high caseloads, but you know what? Here in this team is an example of outstanding practice.’”