By Steve Walker
It is a great moment, in the life of a director of children’s services, to receive an Ofsted inspection report awarding your service an ‘outstanding’ rating.
I was obviously very pleased and incredibly proud that here in Leeds we were able to successfully demonstrate to inspectors the results of all the hard work everyone in the service has put in since our 2010 ‘inadequate’ rating.
But, now is also a good time to say that we have never tried to chase Ofsted ratings. What we have chased is best practice. We knew that if we were achieving good outcomes for children then that would speak for itself in an Ofsted inspection.
We knew from experience and research that what makes the biggest difference to the attainment, achievement and well-being of children and their families are the relationships they have with professionals.
Focus on retaining NQSWs
This was a major challenge for us back in 2010-11 as over 20% of our social work posts were vacant or filled by agency staff. Children cannot form relationships if their social workers are forever changing. We needed to address this quickly.
We knew that experienced and highly skilled social workers were not going to leave good jobs to work in Leeds while we still had unmanageable caseloads, almost no career development and an ‘inadequate’ rating. We also knew this practice environment would also make it difficult to retain the newly qualified social workers who were coming into the local authority.
Therefore, we built our workforce strategy around two principles: creating the conditions that allowed good social work to flourish and providing an environment in which social workers were able to develop their practice and career. This focus on retention has been, I think, the key to unlocking results. Leeds is now the leading authority in the country for the recruitment and retention of social workers and we currently have no agency staff.
We made the teams smaller to ensure team managers didn’t have so many workers to supervise. We created the post of advanced practitioner – part senior practitioner, part mentor – to support recently qualified social workers to develop their practice. I was conscious that we could not promise a newly qualified worker that they would not have child protection cases or a case that ended up in court. But what we could tell them is they would not have one of these cases to deal with on their own and they would always have the support of an advanced practitioner.
High caseloads result in reactive social work
We focused on caseloads. I know there’s a lot of debate in the sector over what is a manageable caseload. My personal view is that a caseload over 20 means a social worker does reactive social work rather than proactive social work. In my work with some local authorities, whose children’s services are experiencing significant difficulties, what I notice most is that they have been doing reactive social work for a very long time and, consequently there is often severe drift and delay in cases. This makes it almost impossible to achieve good outcomes for children.
We still have some way to go in Leeds to reach my ideal, but we have invested a lot to get our caseloads below 20. On average experienced social workers have caseloads of 18; less experienced social workers and those newly-qualified have caseloads of 15.
We try to make sure our offices are high-quality environments and all social workers have their own desk and computer. Team managers have their own offices so they can have confidential discussions as and when the need arises, instead of spending time searching high and low for available meeting rooms. It is, in my experience, often these small things that are extremely important to how effectively a social worker can operate on a day-to-day basis.
Stability allowed us to build better relationships
We also developed a robust career pathway for newly qualified social workers and did our utmost to ensure they felt supported at every stage of it. We linked our training and progression to the Knowledge and Skills Statements for social work.
In December 2013, whilst we were almost fully staffed, only 52% of social workers in Leeds had more than two years’ post-qualifying experience. However, by the time of our Ofsted inspection in 2015 this had risen to over 80%.
But the retention of these social workers did more than reduce the use of agency staff and ensure we had experienced staff. The stability it created enabled us to develop strong relational social work where we worked with children and families – rather than doing things for them or to them. Stability in the workforce also allowed us to build positive relationships with partners and together deliver better outcomes for children. This is what Ofsted found in 2015 resulting in Leeds being rated as ‘good’.
Listen to Steve Walker discuss the latest Ofsted inspection at Leeds council
No magic bullet
This transformation took place over a period of five years. This is not “quick win” stuff and there are no magic bullets or off-the-peg solutions that will deliver you good recruitment or retention in three to six months.
It worries me sometimes when I see a grab for the latest practice model or latest initiative that is rolled out at great cost without first ensuring these fundamentals are in place. If you don’t have a stable workforce you won’t be able to operate the model effectively.
That’s not to say that we have not faced big challenges in Leeds and don’t still face them. Like all children’s services around the country, the financial context in which we are all operating is very, very difficult to say the least. At the same time we are seeing increasing numbers of children and families in working poverty, which is increasing stress and pushing many into crisis.
Get the practice right and outcomes will follow
While elected members in Leeds have voted to protect children’s services as much as possible – and I am very grateful for their commitment to do so – we have still had significant budget reductions to manage. We have been able to maintain, and even increase investment in some areas, but we’ve also had to take money out of others. Our approach to this has quite simple: if you get the practice right you get the outcome right; if you get the outcome right the money will follow.
Despite these challenges, I am very proud that we as leaders, and Leeds City Council as an organisation, recognise and value the critical role that children’s social workers have in supporting the most vulnerable children in the city.
If you do not consistently demonstrate the value you place on social work and social workers; if you do not treat them with respect and understanding, than how can you expect social workers to respect, understand and value the families they work with every day?
It is this simple maxim that is at the heart of our social work retention strategy.
Steve Walker is director of children and families services in Leeds City Council and was also the strategic director for children’s services at Kirklees Council between July 2017 and January 2019.