‘I’m not that bothered about Ofsted. If you want to make a big improvement you’ve got to own it’

Surrey director Dave Hill speaks positively about his plans to turn round children's services in the county in the wake of two consecutive inadequate ratings

Dave Hill
Dave Hill, director of children's services, Surrey County Council

Next month marks the first anniversary of Dave Hill becoming director of children’s services (DCS) at Surrey. The month after he arrived the county received its second consecutive inadequate rating from Ofsted, based on an inspection in February 2018. This found “too many of the most vulnerable children in the county are being left exposed to continuing harm for long periods” and that senior leaders had been too slow to act on the 2014 inspection that delivered the first inadequate rating.

The month after that, June 2018, the government issued a statutory direction to the authority, requiring it to make improvements under the guidance of a commissioner, Cornwall DCS Trevor Doughty, or face losing control of its children’s social care services. There followed two further Ofsted visits, in September 2018 and January 2019, that referred to improvements but were highly critical of the quality of safeguarding and provision for children in care, respectively.

But despite this baptism of fire, Hill will enter the second year of his tenure at Surrey on the front foot, with the launch of a new service model for children’s services, rooted in intervening early with families and tackling the causes of children being in need or at risk. He recently spoke to Community Care about his strategy for turning round Surrey.

Phase 2 of change programme

The new model is phase two of his plan for restoring the quality and reputation of the county’s children’s services. Phase one was about stabilisation, concentrating on getting the basics right, getting a new senior management team in place and ensuring that the county retained control of its children’s services so it could lead its own improvement.

The latter was achieved in November 2018, when the Department for Education confirmed that Surrey would keep its children’s services for at least a further 12 months, on the back of a report by Doughty that said removing control from the authority would be premature given the clear intent of Hill and other senior leaders to turn things around.

‘A proven track record in delivering improvement’

Doughty also spoke of the importance of the council having appointed a DCS with “a proven track record in delivering improvement and a positive reputation in the sector”, as well as a successful chief executive in Joanna Killian, who took up her post in early 2018.

Killian was also Hill’s boss at Essex council, where Hill spent seven years as DCS, after having done the same role at the London boroughs of Merton and Croydon. It was here that the reputation Doughty referred to was forged. When Hill joined in 2010, Essex was an ‘inadequate’ council, in Ofsted terms, but had improved to ‘good’ by 2014, with inspectors saying that Hill and fellow senior managers had been “instrumental in driving the significant improvement in children’s services across the county”.

In January 2019, Essex was rated outstanding, and while this was achieved under Hill’s successor, Helen Lincoln, who herself was described as an “inspirational director” by Ofsted, the inspectorate also praised the way senior leaders had steadily improved the service since 2014, most of which was under Hill’s leadership.

His reputation saw him elected president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in 2015-16 and appointed as a commissioner supporting improvement in Norfolk and Birmingham, where he still performs the role. Birmingham Children’s Trust was recently rated ‘requires improvement’, ending over a decade in which the city’s children’s services had been ‘inadequate’.

‘Not that bothered about Ofsted’

Despite these roles, and his successes, Hill sees inspection ratings as being of secondary importance.

At the launch in January of the Surrey Children’s Services Academy, an initiative designed to improve learning and development for practitioners from all children’s services across the county, he said: “I’m really not that bothered about Ofsted. It’s about us knowing what we need to do for the kids and families in Surrey.”

Speaking to Community Care after the speech, he said: “It’s not that I disrespect Ofsted. The Ofsted inspection regime is better than it’s ever been. Ofsted will come in and out of the place. Trevor Doughty, our commissioner here, will come in and out and they will give us great advice. If you’re going to make a big improvement you’ve got to own it yourself.

It’s not Ofsted’s improvement journey, it’s not the DfE’s, it’s Surrey’s.”

He added: “The last thing I want is for Ofsted to tell me something I don’t know. If Ofsted come in and you’ve not got to the bottom of it then I’m not doing my job properly.”

Unlikely ‘inadequate’ authority

Surrey is perhaps an unlikely place to receive two consecutive inadequate ratings. It is one of the least deprived local authority areas in the country, in the context of evidence that low-deprivation authorities are significantly less likely than high-deprivation councils to get an inadequate rating and much more likely to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

It also has had the leadership stability that is often associated with good performance, with the same council leader (David Hodge) from 2011-17, the same chief executive (David McNulty) from 2009-17 and the same DCS from 2011-17 in Julie Fisher, who was also interim chief executive from 2017-18.

Ofsted pinned the 2014 ‘inadequate’ significantly on a failed reorganisation of children’s services in that same year, and in subsequent monitoring reports repeatedly referred to leaders’ failure to get a grip on the problems facing the county.

Hill said one of Surrey’s problems has been a reluctance to look outside the county’s boundaries for learning and support.

“It’s had quite an inwards looking culture, and not just in children’s services. So one of the things I’m really trying to encourage is for us to learn from others. As that process develops I hope we will have something to offer others.”

Learning from elsewhere

A key example of this learning is the county’s new service model, the family safeguarding model pioneered by Hertfordshire council since 2015. This is focused on tackling the adult problems that cause children to be in need or at risk, through the placement of domestic abuse and adult mental health and substance misuse workers in multidisciplinary teams with children’s social workers and training them in motivational interviewing to support parents and carers to change.


A government-commissioned evaluation of the service, published in 2017, found that it had delivered annual savings of over £2.5m in Hertfordshire through reduced numbers of children entering care and families allocated to children’s social care. In September 2018, Hertfordshire reported that the number of children on child protection plans had fallen by 55% in 30 months, bucking the national trend which has seen the number of children on plans rise steadily each year from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

Reflecting Hill’s emphasis on positive outside influences, the architect of the model, Sue Williams, is now leading its implementation in Surrey.

State over-intervention

The family safeguarding approach chimes with Hill’s philosophy in relation to the children’s social care system, after a decade in which the numbers of children subject to child protection plans and care proceedings have soared.

“The state over-intervenes in people’s lives,” he said. “We think bringing kids into care is the solution but often we do a worse job than the parents. [Family safeguarding is] a model based on the idea that families are resilient. My belief is that we’ve got the balance a bit wrong and we over-intervene, not just in Surrey but nationally.”

“You have a model that works with people early and tends to build on their resilience and doesn’t just say ‘this child is at risk’ without asking why they are at risk,” he added. “The so-called toxic trio features in 90% of referrals that come in here so why wouldn’t you have a model that works with adults to fix their problems – then they will be better parents. If you just look at children and mum’s got a mental health problem then why not fix the mother’s mental health problem?”

Simple structure

Alongside the introduction of family safeguarding, Surrey is also simplifying its service structure. In its report on its September 2018 monitoring visit, Ofsted described a “complex service structure, requiring numerous handover points and changes of social worker as children travel through the statutory social work system”.

In the new structure, the front door will be a family support hub, which will replace the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), and above this will sit a number of assessment teams and then the family safeguarding teams.

“It’s a really simple model. At the moment we have all sorts of really weird and wonderful teams . We are really uncluttering.”

What the changes mean for staff

The recent Ofsted monitoring visit reports paint a positive picture of staff engagement in the changes being made to the council’s children’s services.

The report of the September 2018 visit found: “Morale in the two area offices visited was positive and nearly all social workers seen were permanent employees who are committed to remain working in Surrey. Social workers are both aware of and enthused by the proposed practice improvements and they welcome the planned introduction of a ‘family resilience’ model.”

Ofsted’s subsequent report of its January 2019 focused visit added: “Social workers are largely highly motivated about the introduction of the new practice model and service structure. They reported that communication and opportunities to inform the service transformation are frequent and varied.”

‘80% excited, 20% scared’

However, some staff have left since the change programme started. “Staff are 80% excited, 20% scared to death,” said Hill. “Some have said this is not for me and that’s fine. It’s a really big change for the workers and we are asking a lot of our staff over the next period. It sounds like they are really up for it.”

Hill and his fellow senior managers’ approach is one of high support and high challenge. On the support side, Hill said that improving the wellbeing of staff was one of his top priorities for the coming year.

“It’s a really hard job. We owe it to the people who do that work to give them the support to do the job really well: that there will be fantastic supervision, management and support for our workers and we ware determined that that’s at the heart of what we do.”

“We are going to some lovely stuff: some mindfulness, some massage, we are going to say ‘thank you’.”

‘We were over-optimistic’

On the challenge side of the equation is a new audit process, which Hill said was tougher than what he inherited.

“We’ve got external challenge with people doing the audit who are not here all the time. We say to the practitioner and manager this is the grade we will give to the audit – and we have a lot that aren’t very good at the moment – but we also say ‘this is how you can make it a good audit’. It’s about learning and growing, not just being critical. But it’s got an edge to it. When I got here we were being over-optimistic.”

In the report of its January 2019 monitoring visit, Ofsted said inspectors agreed with the audit judgments it saw and that the new audit system was “providing senior managers with a more assured evaluation of social work practice, enhancing first line managers’ ability to benchmark good practice”.

Hill said that it is the audit system that will demonstrate whether his turnaround programme is having the desired effect.

“You don’t assume that having a new model is going to solve the problem. You really evaluate whether it’s working on the ground. You talk to the families and the young people and you listen really carefully to their views. The model is bold and radical but we are going to constantly test it in practice.”

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3 Responses to ‘I’m not that bothered about Ofsted. If you want to make a big improvement you’ve got to own it’

  1. Why? March 5, 2019 at 10:11 pm #

    Dave Hill states that “‘I’m not that bothered about Ofsted. If you want to make a big improvement you’ve got to own it’. Is Yvette Stanley aware?

  2. Anon March 6, 2019 at 2:35 am #

    Where’s the journalistic challenge in this piece? So sad just to name, blame and shame individuals at the time for failings. Thought we’d moved beyond that? Why wasn’t Iit asked for example, how much money has been spent on ‘external help’, consultants, locum senior managers, locum staff? how much resource was promised and then given to make the significant changes needed? How does this compare with 2014 when the LA first went into intervention? This feels just like an opportunity to showboat with no journalistic integrity. Shame on you CC

  3. Anon March 12, 2019 at 8:34 am #

    This is nothing but self promotion and completely at odds with the mood music of service users – consider the views of the foster carers who feel abandoned by his team. The arrogant statements leave me cold and show a lack of journalistic rigour. Grandstanding like this does little for our profession or leadership reputation.