A local authority that has maintained a “clear focus on prioritising support, including financial resources” for vulnerable children has been praised by Ofsted for its “skilled” workforce, effective frontline management and effective partnerships.
Bolton council’s children’s services was judged to be ‘good’ for its overall effectiveness in its latest Ofsted inspection, published last month.
The council was praised for its “skilled” social workers supporting children in need with “timely and effective services” – with a nod to frontline team managers and their role in supporting staff in purposeful and effective work. Meanwhile “children who are identified as needing to be in care are swiftly assessed, with effective assessments and evidence-based decision-making”.
“The skill and experience of first line managers is recognised and highly valued by social workers and is a key factor in contributing to the experienced and largely permanent workforce,” Ofsted judged.
Value of team managers
Assistant director of children and families Bernie Brown told Community Care that the council’s “valued” team managers are brought through the organisation, with careful succession planning.
“They have opportunities to train, to be more reflective and we’ve engaged them in a broader ongoing management [strategy] that brings team managers, policy and performance teams and commissioning teams together. We’re training as a system, using a quality performance focus around how we improve what we already do,” she says.
“The staff have high caseloads, I can’t dispute it, and they have them across the country. The difference in Bolton, and what was articulated by social workers to the inspectors was that [they] have a high caseload, but [they] feel they can manage it safely and effectively, because they are well supported, have regular supervision that is meaningful, and an organisation that doesn’t run a blame culture.
“Our managers are not managers that go home at 5 o’clock. If we’ve got staff out, you’ve got managers there, on the end of the phone and you’ve got a leadership team that is very proactive and engaged.”
Creative direct work
Ofsted praised Bolton’s social workers for their creativity in direct work with children.
“Social workers build effective relationships with families and ensure that the voices of children inform their work,” inspectors said.
“Children benefit from clear planning and proactive interventions, whether subject to child protection or child in need plans. Creative direct work is undertaken with children to ensure that their wishes and feelings are understood and prioritised.”
Brown says the council’s social workers give children a range of options in telling their story with many tools, including interactive programmes on laptops. She adds that Bolton operates a strengths-based model termed the Bolton Family Approach.
“It’s not a brand, it is about what we do in Bolton, and that is very much an outcome base, impact [model] looking at ‘why has this child come into our care, the reason, how are we going to support them in their journey through care, what are the outcomes, what are the expectations?’ There are clear tangible expectations of what our practitioners are delivering and how they’re held to account for that and then building into that, the opportunities to train and develop.”
She adds that Bolton council is investing in Life Story training for staff “because we need to assist children in making sense of their journeys but also we need to give staff opportunities, not to just stand still in practice. The challenge at every level in the service, including myself, is ‘what’s your CPD, what does it look like and how useful is it’?”.
Inspectors highlighted the political and corporate support children’s services receives, saying that Bolton has “systematically responded” to the improvements identified in its 2014 inspection, when it was judged as ‘requires improvement’.
“Investment in services for children is prioritised by the council in the light of its own accurate self-assessment, in response to the issues they have correctly identified,” it said.
Brown stresses that the council’s consistent investment in children’s services is one of its strengths. “The council hasn’t – in the context of austerity – cut from children’s services. I think the success of Bolton is because social workers, managers and the leadership agree, across the corporate centre, that we want to make a difference for vulnerable people.
“That is the critical factor, as well as a political leadership and a chief executive leadership that values social work practice and sees the strengths in that role. I’m happy and reassured that Ofsted see that connection and golden thread between effective political and senior leadership, and, at the frontline, that facilitation of outstanding social work practice.”
She cites the council’s relatively new leadership team – herself in post for seven months – as having a “sustainable vision for the future of how we are going to enhance the services for children and families in Bolton, through a variety of improvement work in the context of being good, because this is an evolving journey”.
Senior leaders regularly shadow social workers, Brown says. “If you want to have an impact on social worker practice with children and families, you need to understand what that practice in your organisation looks like and more importantly what it feels like. And the only way to see what it feels like is to get out there and see how hard and how complex the social work task is these days.”
Ofsted said improvements were necessary to the council’s early help services – though it acknowledged a review is underway – and its capacity to support children and families affected by domestic abuse.
Inspectors did note the “well-established” partnerships across all the agencies. “Formal arrangements exist to challenge and develop relationships, leading to a shared and cohesive understanding of priorities and actions.
“For example, the proposed Bolton Vulnerable People Strategic Board will join up the partnership approach to domestic abuse in response to the increasing numbers of children and adults whose experiences are adversely impacting on their progress.”
The board is aiming to align both its children’s and adults’ safeguarding boards alongside its community safety partnership. The strategy, Brown says, will incorporate “thematic sub groups across those three boards, and some cross-cutting approaches to areas like domestic abuse, harmful practices, all age neglect and early help. It’s just about being a bit smarter about our planning and our strategic intent, as a council, but also as a partnership”.
“Our job is to empower our communities, so if we empower our staff we will empower our communities that we serve. Ultimately it is communities that safeguard children and quality social work should act as an enabler and facilitator of this. In Bolton we are working collaboratively to deliver this vision.”