Practice quality, not audit: a council’s journey to ‘outstanding’

How the use of no agency staff, lowering bureaucracy and a focus on learning saw a local authority achieve 'outstanding' across the board

improving quality
Photo: Jakub Jirsak

At the start of August, North Yorkshire council’s children’s services was heralded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted – and became the first to achieve this accolade in every measure of its inspection.

Its director of children’s services, Stuart Carlton, shares with Community Care how the council has progressed – highlighting the importance of practice quality beyond performance, a stable workforce with the use of no agency staff and why the council is adamant that progress never stops.

Dropping bureaucracy

“You don’t need to see 100 pages of assessment. What you need to see is continual, short good assessment focusing on strengths and change within families and focused plans created with families and children. And if you do that well and right, you can cut down a lot of the bureaucracy. I still think there’s more for us to do around that, but that’s part of the journey we’ve been on.”

Quality of practice

“Performance gets you only so far in the journey. I think what we’ve done a lot is focus on the practice quality [and ask] what else do we need to do to ensure that our staff on the ground have got the right conditions for practice and that we’re equipping them with the right model of practice that will allow them to do what they do best around relationships and strengths and changing children and families’ lives.”

“Lots of people do audit and see it as a measure of how you improve, but it is something that just tells you, at a point in time, about how good you think you are or not. That’s why we talk about these being learning and reflective spaces. Our audit process is a manager sits alongside the worker and they talk it through. At the end we get an audit report and we use scaling to understand how good we’re doing, so as an organisation we get a sense of our quality but what’s more important is the worker and the manager are sat talking it through, what went well, what they learnt. It’s a bit like an extended supervision session.”

No agency staff

“There was a conscious decision to say we’re not going to have agency workers. You keep staff because they’re enjoying the work and they find it meaningful and they’re well-supported and they have a reasonable caseload. And then you keep a relentless focus on your recruitment and retention.

Our recruitment is modern, it’s constant and attracting people in all the time. If you’re still just doing stuff once every six months, through an antiquated process, then you’ll struggle.

“We did a caseload analysis, we decided we needed another 19 workers, and we went out to get them and just during that point I used four [agency staff] for less than three months. We really believe in relationship-based practice. I want to keep the same worker as much as we can for our children and young people – that is what they tell us makes a massive difference. Permanent settled staff make a huge difference.”

Direct work

“We use signs of safety, so you’ll see lots on children’s records using three houses, words and pictures etc. It’s a way of thinking about doing things with children and families and then you follow that through with the direct work we do around it as well.”

“We also have a good children in care council [and] we are just started our young inspectors programme. We have a good youth executive but we also, as part of our quality assurance process, get lots of feedback from children and families. We draw all that into quarterly reporting that comes through teams and management teams that makes us think about what they’re telling us about services, what they’re looking and feeling like.”


No Wrong Door has a sense of ‘is this good enough for your own child?’ At the heart of it is in our hubs we have police, clinical psychologists and speech and language therapists working alongside our residential staff around how we work better with these young people, access those services directly with them, and that’s had a huge benefit.”

“What it also does is try to say these young people may be just one relationship away from permanence. We look to build a relationship and then make it work.”

“We’ve introduced a psychologically informed partnership approach (PIPA) – what that means is we’ve taken clinical psychologists and embedded them in our frontline teams. Their job is to work to skill up and empower our staff to work with young people in complex situations.”

Never stopping learning

“One of the things, and we already have this in our line of thinking, is about how we create lasting relationships and networks with children and families that outlive us. We need lasting change in children’s and families’ lives, and I think more what we need to be doing with children and families [is] understanding networks, who can support them, how does that make lasting change in their lives, so when we withdraw, they’re going to be successful.”

We’d really like to look even closer and more clearly at the way we do some things around planning and care planning and how we could make that even more child-focused.

“I think we’re seeing, not only [at North Yorkshire], but across the country, some of the best social work ever seen, as we’re allowed to be set free of the bureaucracy and do the things we know are right. Social work is about working with people, so let’s do it in a strengths-based relational way.”

On sharing knowledge

“We’ve worked with, over the last couple of years, well over a dozen local authorities with direct ongoing agreements and with many more coming to us to learn about what we do as we talk to them about what’s making us successful and how they may think about that within their own context. Nothing is ‘lift and shift’. I’m an absolute believer in sector-led improvement, that the expertise is in the system and that we should have professional generosity with each other around the way we work.”

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3 Responses to Practice quality, not audit: a council’s journey to ‘outstanding’

  1. Jeanne Schofield October 16, 2018 at 9:32 pm #

    This is heart warming stuff and written without jargon, well done North Yorkshire, it’s simple and effective. I have worked for 13 year in one LA and have recently left to join a private fostering agency. I was fed up with the lack of vision and too many ‘reorganisations’ as if that is the answer.

    I am now working in an organisation that was rated outstanding last week and has been for a number of years. I now feel valued and appreciated for my hard work and am encouraged to be creative and innovative…it’s really not rocket science

  2. Marisa de Jager October 17, 2018 at 9:19 am #

    Well done! Its absolutely fab reading this. Passion for #socialwork

  3. Eboni November 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm #

    The journey to being an outstanding LA is not to have agency staff. Is that narrative sustainable across the U.K. when there is a national shortage of both skilled and experienced social workers. Money does matter because we all need to have holidays and pay for them. We want to be able to work flexibly and have enough salary to pay a mortgage and due to the stress factors particularly in social work both children and adults we cannot work until we drop. Salary is a factor as is good manager small caseloads act valuing staff irrespective of racial origin gender or disability or religion. Well done NY all you have to do now is sustain it.