How services for care leavers set the standard at an improving London borough

Embedding the Signs of Safety model and working in more focused teams, with better scrutiny, helped Brent council impress Ofsted

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Ofsted has hailed the progress a London borough has made in terms of the services it delivers to looked-after children.

In a report published in early July, inspectors graded Brent council’s offer to children in care and care leavers as ‘outstanding’, having judged it ‘requires improvement’ at their last full inspection in late 2015.

“Children’s outcomes significantly improve when they become children in care,” Ofsted said. “Practitioners and managers are highly effective at supporting the long-term stability for children, young people and care leavers during childhood and beyond.”

They noted that “significant” improvements to social work practice at the council had been underpinned by strong leadership both at a practice level and from local politicians – who had not always been so involved in the past.

The changes were enough to lift the council’s overall grade to ‘good’ – in its first assessment under Ofsted’s new framework – from ‘requires improvement’, despite it making slower progress in terms of help and protection services.

Community Care caught up with Brent’s strategic director for children and young people, Gail Tolley, and operational director Nigel Chapman, to find out more.

Dedicated leaving care service

Chapman puts Brent’s dramatic improvement in services for looked-after children down to a couple of core factors – including establishing a dedicated leaving care team, an area of practice that Ofsted praised.

“Previously, services for care leavers were within teams also dealing with older looked-after children, so we didn’t have the opportunity to focus on needs of care leavers,” Chapman recalls.

In their report, inspectors noted that in the past, care leavers’ needs had tended to be “overshadowed” because the council was too focused on making improvements in other areas.

Now, they said, “there has been a significant and positive change in the culture of leaving care services, which are now outstanding”.

Ofsted noted the “considerable empathy, understanding and compassion” shown by social workers and personal advisors (PAs) toward care leavers they were working with. These softer skills were backed with attention to detail around pathway planning, providing the right housing options and investing in training and employment opportunities, inspectors said.

Separating services out, says Chapman, has “given more of a sense of purpose for PAs, who were scattered around teams, and created the ethos for building a positive culture”.

Meanwhile a new service manager recruited for the leaving care team has resulted in an injection of “energy and ideas”, he adds.

Smaller, more focused teams

But the council has also performed wider restructuring work in between the two visits from Ofsted, which has helped deliver its ‘outstanding’ service elements.

“We made a move, just under a year ago, to a smaller team structure, both for localities and looked-after children,” Chapman says.

Previously, he adds, there had been “too many layers”, with managers not as well connected to frontline activity as they could be. “For looked-after children we felt we needed to have a better, more relationship-based approach than we had,” Chapman says.

Ofsted picked up on the “excellent support” now in place to help children and young people achieve stability. “Of particular note is how emotional wellbeing is prioritised,” inspectors said. “Close attention is paid to the early identification of the impact of trauma.”

Life-story work, which in 2015 was found to be inconsistent, was now being given “great importance”, Ofsted added. “This is not viewed as an additional social work task but an important way of helping a child to understand their past and to help them to move into the future.”

The strength of practitioners’ communication with children and young people, Tolley says, should be seen in the context of Brent having implemented the Signs of Safety model into practice. In 2014 the council became one of 10 to begin piloting the approach, funded by the Department for Education’s Innovation Programme and supported by Professor Eileen Munro’s Munro, Turnell and Murphy consultancy.

“It has given everyone a common language and way of approaching practice,” Tolley said. “In the 2015 [Ofsted] report, wherever the word ‘good’ is used, ‘Signs of Safety’ isn’t far behind – and the shift [since then] is underpinned by its embedding.”

‘Capable leadership at all levels’

Besides solidifying its practice framework, Tolley points to “establishing capable, permanent leadership at all levels” as offering a foundation for improvements at Brent.

On an operational plane good managers have helped stabilise the workforce, she says, with permanent social work staff numbers now at around 80%, up from less than one in four when she arrived in 2014.

But Ofsted also noted that political leadership at the borough was far more engaged than it had been in 2015.

“Time and energy has been invested in ensuring that political leaders and members understand the importance of children’s social care,” inspectors said in their latest report. “This deeper understanding has enabled more robust scrutiny and challenge.”

Tolley acknowledges that improving frontline practice occupied her attention during her first year at Brent.

“There were so many areas [for improvement] to focus on that you prioritise a little bit,” she says.

But she adds that in the wake of past criticism by Ofsted, and the appointment of a new chair, the council’s community and wellbeing scrutiny committee was now much more focused on children’s social care.

“The other area is the corporate parenting committee,” she adds. “We’ve invested time in training the committee and using our young people to train them.”

Making progress

With most service areas on the up, Tolley says efforts are now in place to tackle the handful of areas for change identified by Ofsted, which mostly fall under help and protection – an area still at ‘requires improvement’.

“I’m chairing a monthly group with my operational directors and heads of service, for localities and safeguarding and quality assurance – because one issue was, is our QA function sharp enough?” Tolley says.

The council will “crack” remaining issues – which include around responses to missing children, following statutory guidance, and quality of casework and supervision – within six months, she insists.

Keeping on top of things in the longer term will, however, depend on forging stability in the highest-pressure teams, a challenge for many councils, cautions Chapman.

“Everywhere in London, in frontline child protection teams the market is difficult,” he says. “It remains our biggest challenge – you can’t embed anything without staff who you can invest in.”

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