Council partnerships offer a different way forward for struggling children’s services

The relationship forged between the Isle of Wight and Hampshire offers a resource-sharing model that can be a template for others in a time of austerity

Picture: Julien Eichinger/fotolia

by Ray Jones

In April 2013 I was appointed by the secretary of state for education to chair an ‘improvement board’ on the Isle of Wight and to oversee children’s services improvement there, reporting regularly to the minister for children.

The local authority had recently been judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted inspectors, who found systemic weaknesses had left children poorly protected.

My role continued until the end of 2015, by which time the island’s children’s services had been reinspected by Ofsted and judged to have progressed to a ‘requires improvement’ rating. Earlier this year, the services were again regraded – as good’, matching Ofsted’s assessment of children’s services in Hampshire.

Services in disarray

When I arrived on the Isle of Wight, children’s services were in disarray. This was in part because of what had been the badly-managed introduction of the Hackney ‘reclaiming social work’ organisational model.

Not only was the change poorly managed, within a political, corporate and service culture that was described to me at the time as bullying, but the model itself lacked resilience.

The very small ‘pods’ into which social workers were arranged imploded when there were vacancies or absences. Meanwhile the senior ‘consultant’ social workers, who were the ultimate caseholders within each pod as well as its manager, had direct responsibility for too many – often 80-plus – children and families.

What was unique in tackling the issues on the island was the way forward. This was brokered by civil servants at the Department for Education (DfE) and negotiated between April and September 2013 by the councils on the Isle of Wight and neighbouring Hampshire. In a first, the large county would assume direct management of the island’s children’s services.

During the six-month negotiation period, interim managers were temporarily appointed on the island to crisis-manage its children’s services. They did this with the necessary vigour, but were measured and modest in making organisational changes, aware that the senior managers arriving from Hampshire would need to rebuild and reshape services to make them sustainable in the longer term.

Moving fast

So what lessons to draw from the success of the arrangement between the Isle of Wight and Hampshire? First of all, tackling the issues and moving forward happened more quickly that it would had time and attention been taken up in putting in place an enforced change to move children’s services into an independent trust, as has happened in a number of other areas with mixed results.

It takes well over a year to get the trust arrangement in place, and another for the new organisation to get to grips with what needs to be tackled. The Hampshire senior and service managers were, instead, able to focus from day one on the issues facing children’s services on the island and to hit the road running.

Second, the Isle of Wight–Hampshire model is less heavy on resources. It shares the senior management of one authority with the leadership requirement of, in this case, a much smaller authority which would otherwise have continued to struggle with capacity. It is a model which can be replicable for other councils – in particular smaller ones.

This may have particular relevance at a time of government funding cuts, and with credible and competent senior managers, with their experience grounded in children’s social work practice, a scarce resource. Drawing on and harnessing the experienced, sensitive and sensible, and demonstrably successful, leaders and service managers from one council to assist a neighbouring council was a very positive experience and outcome for all parties. It saved on management costs and made best use of wise leadership and management expertise.

A third benefit of the partnership arrangement is that it has kept children’s services on the island directly and immediately democratically accountable to the island’s council, with open-reporting and transparency to its people. By contrast, accountability arrangements within the independent trust model can be more complex and opaque.

This was not an outsourcing contract, with all the potential dangers that when the contract comes up for renewal others might pitch for the contract. Look, for example, what has happened within community health services where contracts initially awarded to not-for-profit community interest companies led by former NHS staff have then been re-tendered at the end of the initial contract and handed to the likes of Virgin Care.

Using talent

What has also been significant on the Isle of Wight and in Hampshire is that the leadership and management partnership agreement has been substantially built on and from existing workers, some of whom have had career development and enhancement through the arrangement which was made.

The current area director for the island was already working on the island, along with key current service managers. Within Hampshire, senior and service managers have also had career development opportunities, demonstrating their expertise in working with the island’s committed social workers, team managers and others, to turn a troubled children’s services into a service that is much more stable, safe and secure.

There is a message here about ‘growing your own’ and recognising the competence and developing the capacity of existing colleagues and focusing on retention even more than recruitment. Too often the response to an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgement is a clean sweep of existing managers and workers, many of whom have continued to work hard within a crumbling service rather than jumping ship.

The partnership between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight offers a model that shows how local authorities can work constructively together. And it is a way forward which avoids all the complications and potential consequences of moving children’s services outside of local government and the public sector.

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One Response to Council partnerships offer a different way forward for struggling children’s services

  1. stephen handforth March 15, 2019 at 5:15 pm #

    Being the Area Director who first moved across from hampshire to the IOW and lead the first phase of the improvement journey on the Island I can only agree with Ray and in particular about harnessing the talent that was so obviosly already available on the Island. Just because we arrived and assessed what had been quite clearly a very chaotic and dangerous situation did not mean that the staff were not as capable as those in other good performing authorities.It was clear that they had been badly let down by the previous leadership team. Just give people the right tools and with their obvious commitment to improving the lives of children they will eventually flourish. Too often I saw across the board that the baby was thrown out with the bath water so to speak.Strong meaningful leadership with always unearth talent .