‘Diligent’ leadership and work with looked-after children helps London borough find its direction

One local authority’s ‘relentless’ improvement plan starts to sprout progress in children’s services

improvement
Photo: EtiAmmos/Fotolia

A local authority has crossed the boundary from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’, after an Ofsted re-inspection found senior leaders “working diligently” to address deficits in its children’s services.

Inspectors saw “significant improvements” to services for children in need of help and protection at Wandsworth council, with a “well-established” strategic partnership approach to child sexual exploitation and children who go missing.

Services to care leavers were rated ‘good’, with Ofsted noting that investment had been placed into specialist staff to promote mental health and next steps in education and training.

Councillor Sarah McDermott, cabinet member for education and children’s services, tells Community Care that the process has been “relentless”, but a cross-party improvement board has helped steer progress.

“I think the issue, from what I understand from three years ago, is that we really had no idea what wasn’t and was working,” she says. “The key thing now is we are clear on where the good things are and where the issues are, so in a way, the report coming through [with its] nine recommendations are exactly as we see it.

“As leaders and managers, we’re aware of where our weaknesses are and [were] already working on them when Ofsted were coming,”

‘Warts and all’ auditing

Ofsted praised senior leaders for their “demonstrable commitment to ‘get it right’ for children and families”. The regulator judged them to know the strengths and weaker areas of the service, and “recognise that the quality and consistency of practice require further improvement to ensure all children receive a consistently good standard of help and support”.

In some areas, the report noted, “the quality of practice and the need to continue to stabilise the workforce remain a challenge”.

With that in mind, McDermott says there has been notable investment, including in extra staff, towards improving auditing – which she describes as “so much more accurate now”. Sometimes the resulting messages are “tough”, admits McDermott.

But, she adds, “We say, ‘Give us the message, warts and all,’ because that’s what we want to hear – we want to know where the weak places are so we can move on.”

Making services CLICK

Wandsworth’s corporate parenting board, established after the previous inspection in 2015, was said to be “effective” by inspectors, with children’s views actively influencing new service developments.

The board features council representatives and those from its Wandsworth’s Children Living in Care Kouncil (CLICK), noted by Ofsted for its “impressive” contribution to policy work.

“CLICK members have been involved in the recruitment of strategic leaders and the training of foster carers, and have contributed significantly to policy development for children in care,” the report said. “The range and reach of CLICK work demonstrates notable and sustained achievements.”

One of the areas CLICK where has had an input is around services for care leavers. These have seen strong progress, according to Ofsted, with a rating of ‘good’ a solid jump from the ‘inadequate’ seen in the previous inspection.

“A clear ‘offer’ to young people has been developed with them that sets out their entitlements to support and help. Young people who spoke to inspectors were aware of their entitlements and knew who to turn to should they be dissatisfied with any aspect of the support that they were receiving,” Ofsted said.

McDermott says CLICK’s input has been pivotal. “They’re a wonderful group of young people and they feed back so much which is useful to us, but I think we’ve got to move that forward in the pipeline and involve children in need and protection for children to get some more voices for them.

“We’ve got to think how we’re going to do that, and I’m sure CLICK and our participation consultants and our youth voice in Wandsworth are all going to be involved in that.”

Housing partnership progress

Elsewhere, other strategic partnership responses were judged as “well established”, notably to child sexual exploitation and to children who go missing.

“Newly implemented safety plans for children most at risk are comprehensive,” the report said. “However, practice in convening complex strategy meetings for vulnerable adolescents is underdeveloped. This means that information sharing and actions to reduce risks are not always well coordinated, timely or effective.”

In general, partnership working “has definitely improved”, according to McDermott, though she acknowledges the council has been “struggling a bit with health [partners]”.

“There’s some work to do with health but we’re on the case with that, but obviously we need to get our action plan up and running and we definitely need all partners involved,” she says.

Work with housing partners, on the other hand, has “come on leaps and bounds”, McDermott says, highlighting a marked improvement in finding children homes within the borough. “We have lots of houses and homes in the pipeline both for supported living and for independent living for children leaving care, which will be a great move forward.”

She considers the link with the council’s early help strategy as “absolutely core to all that is children’s social work”. The service employs an assistant director responsible just for early help, who has been in post just over six months.

‘We can’t clone social workers’

Ofsted noted that while workforce stability was improving, a high turnover in some teams was having a “detrimental impact” for some children, with too many changes of social workers and managers “impeding plans”.

Wandsworth established a social care academy in 2017, which Ofsted judged as “appropriately” supporting newly qualified social workers in their assessed and supported year in employment.

“In addition, the local authority increased numbers over establishment to enable capacity to develop their own staff, which is a positive development,” it noted.

McDermott acknowledges that investing in the workforce remains a priority for the council, but highlights the regional and national challenge for recruitment.

“It is so important getting the workforce right. We’re all competing for social workers. We can’t clone them.”

The council has reduced its agency staff reliance, and McDermott praises the “bedrock” workforce as “really giving a good feel”.

“They’re the ones that are going to attract the new members [of staff] in, will work with them to mentor them and get them into the system.”

The council held a conference the day the Ofsted report was published, to discuss the strengths found in the inspection as well as the areas for improvement.

“We had children there and we had social workers and they were all very involved in giving their views in how we take this forward, what their perspective is. I think the voice, not just of the children but of the social workers, is so important,” McDermott says.

McDermott is adamant the nine recommendations highlighted by Ofsted for improvement – down from 17 in 2015 – can be taken on. “We can certainly hit the ground running with those,” she says. “We’re not going to be standing still, we’ll be pushing forward and the next inspection we’ll be aiming for that ‘good’ – and why not ‘outstanding’?”

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