Children’s social work in Suffolk is flourishing thanks to the efforts of senior leaders, Ofsted concluded in judging the authority’s children’s services overall, and its leadership team, ‘outstanding’ following a full inspection in April.
In the report, leaders were praised for fully addressing recommendations made during the council’s previous inspection in 2015, when services were rated good overall.
Some of the ingredients for this success are familiar – Ofsted referred to strong and stable leadership, the council’s successful implementation of a practice model and good joint working between social work, early help and partner agencies. But Suffolk has also enabled social work to flourish while implementing hotdesking, an approach that the vast majority of practitioners nationally see as incompatible with social work, a Community Care survey found earlier this year.
Following the inspection, corporate director for children and young people Allan Cadzow spoke to Community Care about what he and other senior managers have done to improve frontline practice and workforce performance.
One of the major highlights of the 2019 Ofsted report of was the implementation of Signs of Safety by senior leaders, something which Ofsted labelled “exemplary”.
Inspectors said the model, which was introduced across the council in 2014-15, was being used well by practitioners and had helped them “focus on key risk and protective factors”.
Signs of Safety encourages social workers to work collaboratively with families, taking an open-minded approach, clearly distinguish between past harm and future risks, highlight the family’s strengths and protective factors, and then build a safety plan around this.
More news on Ofsted reports:
When Ofsted last visited, in 2015, the model was at an early stage of implementation, and while inspectors said its influence was strongly evident in good assessments, in a minority of cases, risks were not well enough articulated, analysis insufficiently developed and children’s views not sufficiently represented.
However, in 2019, the inspectorate said that social workers and early help staff produced “good-quality assessments that demonstrate professional curiosity, and accurately reflect children’s current circumstances and needs”.
Ofsted reported that the model was now fully embedded, meaning Suffolk and its partners had a shared understanding of, and a common language to describe, risks and protective factors.
Designed and made for practitioners
Cadzow explains that leaders chose the model because it gave practitioners the flexibility to work in different ways and react to families’ individual circumstances.
“Every family is different, and every practitioner is different, and often families are quite fast-changing, so you need a flexible model which lets practitioners adapt.
“For example, Tool X may not work for a particular child, so you have to explore a different way of doing things.”
He added that the model was also chosen because it valued practitioners’ experience and allowed them to use their initiative.
“It’s designed by practitioners, for practitioners. Quite often what we tried to do in the past is adapt management style models from other industries, but this one is actually designed by social workers.
At the end of the day, practitioners are the ones who visit family’s homes and are the ones making the decisions and making a difference, so you have to focus on what they do and that’s what this particular model does.”
A new way of thinking
While social workers in Suffolk took to Signs of Safety quickly, there were a few bumps along the way, says Cadzow.
“During training, some of the more experienced practitioners thought that what they had done before was wrong [because they were now being taught something different],” he says.
“So, [leaders] had to be very clear and point out that what they had done before was not wrong, but this was just a different way of looking at things.”
Cadzow explains that leaders tackled uncertainty towards Signs of Safety by being honest with practitioners and taking their doubts on board.
“I think it was really important not to pretend that the new model was some sort of panacea that was going to suddenly make social work a lot easier or solve all our problems.
“It was important that we listened to the doubts and concerns of some social workers, which were totally valid, and sat down with them to discuss their anxieties.”
Leading by example
Cadzow highlights buy-in from senior leadership was absolutely crucial in convincing staff and wider services of Signs of Safety’s benefits.
He says leaders made it clear to staff from the start that they were going to persevere with the model and ensured they were as close as possible to the process.
“Because the council championed the model from the top, social workers and early help practitioners believed in the new way of working as they understood that everyone was committed [to the model] and working towards the same goal, whether that was frontline practitioners or directors.
“For example, one of the things that we did right from the start was at the beginning of every single session, before introducing the model, a senior leader stood up in front of the group and did the introduction.
“This was really good because it showed frontline staff that the most senior people in the organisation were laying out what the council was going to do and saying how they would be supported to work within the model, so it was about reinforcing it.
“The fact that senior leadership pays huge amounts of attention shows professionals that practice is important, it is seen and appreciated”.
Ticking the right boxes
One of the successes of using a strengths-based model has been social workers’ opportunity to spend more time with children and families, reinvigorating practitioners and enabling them to get away from their desks, according to Cadzow.
“I think [the new model] has made social workers much more aware that they are there to help families and make the changes they need to for the children, which is their job,” he says.
“Social work isn’t about filling in forms, obviously that’s part of the role of a social worker, but the primary purpose of the job is to work with families and to bring about change. And, I think that’s made them rediscover social work because I think it did become a bit ‘box-ticky’ and ‘form-filly’ for a while.”
Getting practitioners involved
Inspectors also praised Suffolk’s leaders for the way in which they introduced a new case management system, which has helped managers “to carefully monitor and evaluate the experiences and progress of children”.
Cadzow says the council worked with Liquidlogic to create its new computer system, commenting that it was “a big adjustment” after using the old one for more than 20 years.
A recent Community Care survey, which asked social workers to share their thoughts on the effectiveness of their case management system, found that 60% had their ability to do their jobs disrupted by their system every week.
Cadzow explains leaders involved practitioners across the whole development process, including in identifying the system to go for, and says this had been a major part of a successful delivery.
‘You’re really important to us’
“We didn’t just want to buy something and tell social workers and early help practitioners this is what you’re using.
“It was about saying to teams, ‘you’re the ones using the system and you’re really important to us, so tell us what’s working and tell us what’s not working’.”
Cadzow insists that upgrading the council’s hardware was just as important as implementing a state-of-the-art case management system.
He says social workers were given decent laptops to support Signs of Safety, which encourages practitioners to spend time out of the office.
Having laptops allows Suffolk’s practitioners to work from home; something which he and other senior leaders support.
“Why drive back to the office if you don’t need to? If you can use somewhere else as an office or even go home and do your work, that’s the beauty of things like decent laptops and mobiles these days – you can pretty much work anywhere.
“All of our social workers are quite young, and have young families, they’ve got other things going on and we need to be flexible around them. Basically, as long as they get the job done and it’s done well, I don’t really care where they are doing.”
Benefits of sharing the floor
Leaders at Suffolk took the decision to co-locate children’s social work and early help services, in an attempt to encourage teams to work more closely together, which Ofsted said had created a “seamless transfer” of children’s case management.
Cadzow says the relationship between the two services is critical to ensuring that families where there is significant risk are not held inappropriately in early help and vice versa.
Also, they often work with the same families, with early help workers providing support services in cases where the family is receiving statutory social work as well.
“That relationship between those two services is really crucial, and co-location just adds the ability for a worker to walk across the floor and say, I’m a bit worried about this or, what do you think about that? And that’s worked really well.”
However, he says this did not come naturally, with leaders having to play their part in encouraging joint working.
“You can co-locate teams, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people will start working collaboratively. We actually had to make sure that joint working was being respected, but also noticed and rewarded.
“For example, one of the things we have tried to do is keep early help workers involved with families when they step up from early help to social care, so it encourages joint working and it doesn’t feel like they are abandoning families”.
Hotdesking done right
To make co-location successful, Suffolk’s leaders decided to employ hotdesking, and although common within the profession, it is not popular.
However, Cadzow says leaders at Suffolk viewed it as crucial to implementing successful co-location of services, and it’s largely worked in the county.
“People moan about [hotdesking] a little because you’ll always have that day when you can’t find a desk. But, generally speaking, it’s going pretty well but that’s because we have really encouraged [social workers] to work flexibly.
“I think hotdesking is one of these things that you need to work with. I think if people have decent laptops and mobile phones, they don’t feel so tied to their desk. But they still have team bases”.
Laying it bare
When confronted with complaints about the council’s hotdesking policy, Cadzow says he lays bare the reality of the council’s situation.
“The hard message is we can afford staff, or we can afford desks, but we can’t afford both. And, if I’ve got a choice between desks and staff, I’m going to have staff every day of the week.
“So, it’s showing, or it’s explaining to staff, the reality of the council’s situation”.
Senior managers also hotdesk themselves. “It’s not like I’m sitting in my palatial office”, Cadzow adds.
Workforce stability praised
Another point raised by Ofsted was the council’s achievement in increasing workforce stability – enabling children and young people to “maintain meaningful relationships with their social workers” – through a “strong and effective” focus on recruitment and retention.
Inspectors noted that new employees were given an “effective induction”, including time to “complete essential training, shadow colleagues and build up their caseloads gradually”, and that staff turnover had decreased.
Ofsted also reported that newly qualified social workers (NQSW) reported positive experiences of Suffolk, which Cadzow attributes to its policy of limiting caseloads.
During the first six months, the maximum caseload for NQSWs is 15 children, rising to 20 between 6 to twelve months, and then 25, the maximum for all practitioners, after 12 months.
“Inevitably when you start a new job or you’re doing a new thing, it takes you longer because you don’t know the ropes or the people, so having that protected caseload is really important because we need to nurture people and make sure that they feel welcomed and they are doing a job that is doable.”
This year’s Community Care Live 2019 boasts over 30 free learning sessions to equip you to face the key challenges in social work practice today. You can also sign up to any of our eight legal learning sessions to help ensure you have the legal literacy your role requires. Register now to ensure you don’t miss out.