When Iain Low joined Croydon to head its children’s social care front door last November, he was already clear about his first priority.
When Ofsted had rated the London borough inadequate just two months earlier, one of its main criticisms had been the front door – or, rather, the front doors. Croydon had two: its early help hub and its multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH).
“Ofsted said, quite rightly, how can you guarantee that everything going into the early help hub has the right oversight?” says Iain. “With the high volume of work and the complexity of the borough you need a single front door.”
News of Ofsted’s judgement had not deterred Iain from taking on the role at Croydon – if anything it heightened his sense of purpose. Having been a children’s services manager at both Haringey and Northamptonshire councils throughout their improvement journeys, he has first-hand experience of delivering organisational change.
“I want to focus on change management,” he says. “In practice, that means supporting practitioners and managers in creating change – change for the organisation and for children and young people. It’s about looking at different ways of doing different things to improve the lives of our children and families.”
A single front door
In March that recommendation became reality with the creation of Croydon’s Single Point of Contact (SPOC). Iain says Croydon’s approach was to treat the SPOC as a new service rather than just have the MASH absorb the early help practitioners who staffed the hub.
To that end the new front door draws in new partner agencies such as a housing worker and an alcohol and drugs specialist from the charity Turning Point. Iain is also building closer ties with child and adult mental health services too.
There can, at times, be misunderstanding of what the MASH is, and this can be confusing for partners, who may need to deal with more than one local authority. Different local authorities call their front door the MASH, others have different names for their front door but all have a MASH process.
“Our new Single Point of Contact reviews all contacts and referrals relating to the welfare or safeguarding of children and young people,” says Iain. “Engaging with families is a key role for social workers in the SPOC, and we need permanent social workers who are skilled and enjoy talking with families, understanding what’s happening for them.
“We have a co-located team of professionals from key agencies who research, interpret and determine what is proportionate and relevant to share. Focusing on risk analysis and assessment, based on the fullest information we make the right decision for each child and young person”.
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The change to a single front door has already led to greater social worker oversight of every referral.
“There’s a qualified social worker footprint on everything that comes into the front door now, assessing the level of need and risk for every contact and referral received from agencies across the borough,” says Iain. “Everything has got to have the right oversight and that’s important given the stage of our improvement journey we’re on.”
Improving a front door to children’s social care isn’t just about the social workers and other practitioners within the service, however. It’s also about working with the outside partner agencies that make referrals, whether that’s schools, nurseries or health visitors.
“The challenge is that when you have partners that are anxious about safeguarding they can make referrals, when a better response for children, young people and families may be an early help offer,” says Iain.
“That means staff and managers in the front door need to have challenging, yet respectful, professional conversations with our partners to explain when it’s appropriate to refer to us.”
To help with this challenge, SPOC has established a consultation line, which is proving to be a popular resource for partner agencies.
“Now agencies who think they might need to make a referral but aren’t sure can phone up and get some quick advice,” says Iain. “That’s making a difference, partners are getting better on understanding consent.
“Unless it’s a significant safeguarding issue referrals should have parental consent but in the past some referrers would put in referrals without talking to parents so when the parents find out it causes problems.”
Passionate social workers wanted
Together with its partners Croydon has developed a Partnership Early Help Strategy and delivery plan, which will ensure they are working together to offer families the right help, at the right time. The aim is that families will be able to access universal and early help services from a range of partners – working together at a single delivery-hub within their local community.
Creating SPOC has been an important step forward for Croydon but Iain is upfront about the need for more and faster improvement. The biggest challenge for the authority is recruiting and retaining social workers, social workers who are focused on creating positive change for children, young people and their families.
“We need social workers with passion and a desire to be part of an improvement journey,” he says. “It’s not a job that all social workers may flourish in, but many do and we want to encourage them to be part of Croydon’s journey to good.
“We need people with skills, experience and enthusiasm who want to make a change, who want to see the difference they and the service they work for can make for children, young people and their families. We’ve got the basics in place now. We’ve got good foundations but we need permanent social workers who can help us take the service to the next level.”
One of those crucial foundations is having strong political and corporate support.
“This is a council that’s committed to making the difference and the changes necessary,” says Iain. “For example we’ve got a corporate support board chaired by the chief executive, driving the improvement journey. The board brings all the different parts of the council together to ensure blockages can be sorted out – be it a systems, HR or legal issue.
“I’m clear there is the corporate and wider partnership commitment to changes – we now need the permanent frontline social workers and managers who have the drive and ambition to help us make those changes happen.
“Ultimately, it’s about the workers. To improve you need the right workers in the right seats. If you crack that, you’re halfway there.”