Purposeful investment in a learning culture: one children’s services journey to ‘good’

‘Tenacious’ social workers and determination to improve children’s outcomes drive ‘significant’ improvements at Havering

A local authority that has “significantly improved” its services to children has been praised by Ofsted for its determination to “strive for improvement and an openness to learning”.

Havering council, rated “good” overall in an inspection published late last month, was praised for “clear to see” improvements in the quality of assessments, while its multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), early help services and services to care leavers were singled out for their marked progress since a previous inspection in 2016.

“Children and families increasingly benefit from a good range of early help services,” Ofsted said in its report – the first inspection for Havering under the new framework. “The creation of community-based collaborative services involving partners has strengthened this provision”.

Social workers were “tenacious” in helping children gain an insight into their lives, the report added, while leaders had demonstrated a determination to improve outcomes for children, supported by “purposeful corporate investment and commitment”.

Tim Aldridge, director of children’s services, tells Community Care that he thinks Ofsted inspectors were mindful of Havering’s culture and “the fact that social workers were positive about working [there]”.

Systemic practice

Across the whole of children’s services, Aldridge talks of having made “real inroads” in improving workforce stability, adding that Havering has a clear vision as to what comes next.

He talks of a more joined approach for early help and the MASH, making the flow more seamless.

“Some of that systemic thinking starts from the front door, so we’ve got a systemic family therapist that works alongside the MASH team and the assessment team to look at the work that’s coming in through the front door and really think about how we support families and how we engage families in as positive a way as is possible,” Aldridge says.

Alongside this, he says, Havering has put “a huge amount” of work into changing its approach to looked-after children. This includes opening a “one stop shop” for care leavers, Cocoon, which is co-produced with young people and deemed “highly impressive” by Ofsted.

Inspectors found “consistent examples of IROs visiting children in between the reviews of their care plan and undertaking midpoint reviews to ensure that actions from reviews are acted upon”. Children’s wishes and feelings were listened to and acted on in reviews, the report said.

Aldridge says this was recognised as needing improvement under the previous inspection. “It’s about being clear about why we are involved in children’s lives; that planning process has been a strong collaborative piece of work between the permanency team, the long-term social work team and the IRO service.

“We’ve got much greater scrutiny, much clearer planning but also [a] much healthier [culture],” he goes on. “Now I think we’re a much more collaborative service.”

‘Obsession with assessments’

A core area for improvement following the previous inspection was the quality of assessments, which was recognised by Ofsted this time around.

“The majority of assessments include succinct analysis informed by information gathered during the assessment process. The views of children and families are well evidenced. This enables social workers and managers to make appropriate decisions regarding the support that children and families need,” the report notes.

One contributing factor, Aldridge says, “is what’s called our ‘obsession with assessments’.” This is a weekly workshop that brings together practitioners to engage in practice-based discussions on various themes.

“It’s that investment in the staff, it’s that commitment to learning, that’s really helped us to maintain that level of improvement,” Aldridge says.

‘Outward looking’

Aldridge says the council’s “outward looking” approach has also benefitted it. Havering has worked alongside other local authorities to look at their models, including a recent peer review by a nearby borough, but also examining practices in councils further afield.

“It’s about looking outside; how we can learn and develop based on collaboration,” he says. “I’m committed to sharing more with other local authorities and I think that’s a challenge for modern leadership of children’s services – you can be much less focused on just the individual local authority and take a much wider view of our collective responsibility to children and families across the wider area.”

Learning and development

Havering has a social work academy that covers both children’s and adults’ social care, led by the council’s principal social worker, Kate Dempsey. The council has also “invested heavily” in systemic family therapy training, says Aldridge.

“All of our practitioners have access to the foundation level of systemic family therapy training, and we’re also sponsoring some of our practitioners to go on and study for year 2 and the masters level qualification.

“We’ve got a team of systemic family practitioners who work alongside our social workers and that really provides the capacity to support practitioners to bring the learning from the training and put it into practice.”

The council has “heavily invested” in Firstline to develop its team managers, alongside working with Frontline and Step Up to Social Work. Management oversight was highlighted by Ofsted as an area for further improvement: “While the vast majority of social workers receive regular supervision, it is often too focused on compliance with timescales and not always sufficiently analytical or reflective.”

“There’s clearly more improvements we’re engaged in,” says Aldridge. “One key area is around that workforce development, that ongoing development of first line managers, and that’s very much linked to the quality and consistency of supervision.

“Another is the work we’re doing to develop our partnership approach to safeguarding adolescents – so the local safeguarding children’s board here has recently commissioned a piece of work to draw a partnership safeguarding adolescents policy, so that strategy will really support us working closer with partners and developing an even more robust model of intervention.”

“I think there’s a real key piece which is the ability of the senior leadership team to engage with the workforce, understand their issues and respond to them. We’ve looked at working more closely with our workforce, and that’s about really understanding and focussing in on practice and what constitutes good practice, and what gets in the way of it.”

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