An Ofsted report can only tell so much of a council’s story.
In Suffolk County Council, that story is a positive one, with the children’s service recently praised as being ‘outstanding’. Inspectors identified the political and financial support given to children’s services, the “exceptionally high standard” of service and how “the ethos of supporting children is reflected in the support offered to staff, with effective training, supervision and opportunities for development” as key factor in the council’s success.
Going deeper than Ofsted’s report, Community Care spoke to members of staff at Suffolk County Council about what made their service ‘outstanding’.
– Put a social worker in the top job
Allan Cadzow, director of children and young people services, was a children’s social worker who joined Suffolk in 1995. Director of people, Sue Cook, was also a frontline social worker.
Allan says social work equips you with invaluable skills for successful senior leadership and managing and supporting your workforce.
“If you’re a children’s social worker, particularly if you’re in it for a long time, you’ve got to have resilience, optimism, and got to be able to celebrate the good times and learn from the bad times because that’s what you get with families. You need to have hope for families to change and change themselves for the better. I think the profession lends itself well to the hurly burley of senior management.”
He sees his journey – from frontline social worker to senior leader – as one available to all members of staff in Suffolk, with the skills developed through social work key to making senior leaders empathetic and understanding about the needs of the frontline.
– Trust in your staff to excel
All of the investment in the world won’t make a difference if staff aren’t empowered and supported to do a good job.
Allan stresses this is achieved by backing practitioners not to be obsessed with policies and procedures: “You have to have faith in social workers’ ability to do the right thing and people like working like that because they enjoy being trusted and doing flexible work for the family rather than the linear approach that over-prescriptive procedures and policies can force you down.”
Naomi Chingono, an experienced social worker, has seen this on the frontline and been supported to invent and develop new templates of working with children and families.
She explains how she doesn’t let processes get the best of her, instead opting to slow her work down, listening intently to the parents and children have to say and using that to help build her approach to finding and addressing family problems.
She adds: “We like to build relationships with children and use their words as that is the most powerful thing for the parent to hear their own children’s voices to demonstrate why we’re worried and why the child is worried.”
– A supporting team spirit
For Gugu Mpofu, a newly qualified social worker who joined the Council last year, the supporting atmosphere in Suffolk was essential to helping her settle in effortlessly.
“I get constant supervision because the managers are so approachable. I can speak to the practice manager, service manager if they are not there, consultant social workers, and everyone is ready and willing to pitch in.”
She says the nature of her office means she is able ask a question and have “so many people” willing to help her out, which is invaluable as she finds her way in her first statutory job.
– Foster your social work talent
Opportunities for development are very important for retaining social work staff, as well as ensuring they are highly skilled. To foster this in Suffolk, the council created two new posts of experienced and consultant social workers.
The experienced role is for practitioners who want to progress without going into management, whereas consultant social work positions are a step up from the frontline but below management to help social workers make the transition smoothly.
Naomi moved into an experienced social worker role last year, four years after qualifying and joining Suffolk, and opted for the position because she wanted to be “as hands on as possible while working more complex cases and trying to help develop the team”.
The role allows her to be a “supervisor and mentor” to other social workers and also get specialist training she then helps to disseminate.
“The promotion is an acknowledgement that you are performing well and can take on the more complex cases.”
– Release staff from the office
Covering a large geographical area can pose challenges to social workers who are bound to working in the office in terms of time spent travelling and the knock-on effect it could have on time spent with families. It also makes maintaining a positive work/life balance more difficult.
Recognising this, Suffolk empowers practitioners to work from home when necessary – whether it be to manage travel time or deal with childcare issues – and has bases for staff to work in across the county.
What it is like to work in Suffolk:
– Reducing stress: – Suffolk County Council has a supportive Employee Assistance Programme, a free and confidential service provided for employees and offers a range of expert advice, invaluable information, specialist counselling and support. In addition, we have robust supervision arrangements which are greatly valued by staff.
We have also created successful links between frontline practitioners and the Directorate Management Team, this has offered the opportunity for staff across the organisation to directly access senior managers. Through these efforts to flatten the hierarchy structure further, leadership is therefore more transparent and practitioners can directly input into strategic planning, act as an additional source of scrutiny and benefit from shared ownership of processes and planning.
Flexible working: Suffolk County Council is absolutely committed to supporting flexible working wherever possible, including offering various working patterns (part-time, job-share, early/ late finish). We equip staff with laptops and mobile phones to support them to deliver their work flexibly working across any council buildings and home working.
Parking: All social workers are entitled to free parking across all office locations in Suffolk.
Holiday: We offer an excellent annual leave package of up to 36 days (including bank holidays) subject to length of service. Our employees can also purchase up to an additional 8 weeks annual leave a year.
Salary: £29,636 rising to £32,878 (pro rata for part time hours)
Local benefits: Suffolk County Council employees can get discounts on a wide range of goods and services; from e-vouchers and reloadable card discounts at top high-street retailers (including the top 5 Supermarkets) to booking a holiday, going to the cinema and other leisure activities.
– A practice model isn’t a magic wand
Allan said the council chose a Signs of Safety model six years ago and has worked tirelessly on implementing it, refining it and communicating it to staff.
“It isn’t perfect because nothing is. You can implement any practice model well or badly and use it well or badly but we’ve stuck to and concentrated on what makes a difference to the quality of practice that goes on in people’s houses with those frontline practitioners, so keeping that real focus on practice has really helped.”
Naomi explains how the council is still building on the model, years on from implementation.
“We do monthly workshops on Signs of Safety where we share how it is being developed, how paperwork and templates are updated and this is continuous in everything that we do.”
Naomi is also her locality’s practice lead and attends monthly workshops where staff look at how it can be furthered developed and how paperwork and templates can be updated.
– Keep investing in the service
Inspectors praised the impact of financial investment into Suffolk children’s services, in particular the impact this money has had on reducing social work caseloads.
Allan isn’t satisfied though, and wants the caseloads to be reduced further, and the council is backing the service to do this through further investment to build on the success of the inspection.
Naomi says her team has seen the difference this investment brings: “We do see falling caseloads in our team, which has been kept quite steady and therefore the caseloads have been well managed. The approach of working across all agencies means there is better identification of what needs to come to us and what families want.”
For Allan, the council’s ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating is not a destination on his or the council’s journey but a steppingstone.
He insists an ‘outstanding’ rating doesn’t mean the council is ‘perfect’ and he still wants to work to make practice conditions better for social workers, caseloads lower for social workers and services better for children and families, which can only be achieved by supporting each social worker to have the long-term growth and experience in Suffolk he has had.