Shifting the focus to the child: how one council went from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in two years

Taking a child-focused approach to assessments through multiple visits and growing its own social workers have been critical in Barnet council's turnaround, says director Chris Munday

improvement
Photo: EtiAmmos/Fotolia

Two years. That’s how long it took Barnet council to move from having “widespread and serious failures” to “delivering good outcomes” in its children’s services, in Ofsted’s terms.

In spring 2017, in delivering an ‘inadequate’ rating to the north London borough, inspectors branded assessments, child protection investigations, care planning, case recording, care planning and managerial oversight as “poor”, while threshold decisions were “inconsistent at every stage”. As a result, services could “neither adequately ensure the safety, nor promote the welfare of children and young people” .

However, returning for another full inspection in May 2019, Ofsted found the vast majority of assessments were “timely, comprehensive and of good quality”, child in need and child protection plans were “realistic and identify clear desired outcomes”, and threshold decisions for care proceedings were applied correctly. The result was a good rating.

So what explains the improvement? Community Care spoke to Barnet’s executive director of children and young people, Chris Munday, about how he and colleagues have turned things around.

A more child-focused approach

One area where Ofsted saw substantial improvement was in the quality of assessments. Following the 2017 inspection, which found that “large numbers of poor-quality assessments do not effectively analyse risk, so lead to reassessment and poor planning” and that there was “little focus on the lived experience of children”, Munday says leaders collectively agreed the council needed to take a more child-focused approach to assessments.

“Identifying the importance of the child and emphasising that it was their assessment was really critical for what we wanted to do.

“A lot of our assessments in the past were quite adult orientated, so you could find out quite a bit about the family, but you didn’t necessarily know a great deal about the child.

To achieve this, he says social workers were encouraged to visit children more frequently, allowing them to properly get to know the children on their caseload and painting a more complete picture of the child’s situation.

“You might need to do multiple visits to get a really true understanding,” he says. “But once you have a really true understanding, you can do a really good plan and that might mean that you don’t need to bring more children in and escalate.”

The change in approach, as well as quality, was picked up by Ofsted, who said in 2019: “Children’s and family’s views, often gathered over a number of visits, are well evidenced and inform assessment outcomes.”

Munday says refocusing assessments was part of a wider campaign, called ‘It’s all about me’, to put children at the heart of everything the council’s children’s services did.

We realised that, actually to lever the changes we needed, we had to shift our focus from social workers to children, because decisions that we take would then be different.”

Equipping social workers

Munday explains that reducing caseloads in previous years allowed social workers to visit families more regularly. However, he says, while this created the conditions for success, the council “also needed to reinforce this whole concept of being a child-centred service”.

So the council also invested in extra training to ensure practitioners had the right skills to be able to work more closely with children, organising sessions on how to conduct good assessments and do direct work, and on exploring culture and identity.

Munday says he has had no negative feedback from social workers since they were asked to spend more time with families and conduct multiple visits, as getting out of the office is something they believe “they should be doing”.

“What [the report] says to me is that they aren’t just spending time on the system, because they are going out their and they’re going out there a number of times and doing work with children.

Battling high turnover and agency rates

An improvement in the stability of the council’s social work workforce was another positive picked up by inspectors.

Two years previously, the watchdog said “the experience of change and churn was still a reality” for social work teams, despite efforts to implement its workforce strategy.

In 2017, Barnet had a turnover rate of 18.6% which compared with a national average of 13.6%. Meanwhile, the council’s agency rate was 22.4% (national average: 15.8%) and its vacancy rate 32.1% – almost double the national average of 17%.

When inspectors returned, they reported that the council’s workforce strategy was beginning to have an impact on increasing the numbers of permanent workers, helping to ensure children had fewer changes of social worker.

The council reported an improvement in its turnover rate in the year to June 2019 compared with 2017, at 16.7%, though its agency rate, at 26.9%, was higher at June 2019 than in 2017.

Change of direction on recruitment

When Munday first joined the council in 2016 he says there was an emphasis on recruiting experienced social workers. However, he says that the council struggled with this approach.

Keen to boost the number of permanent workers on its books, he says the council changed its workforce strategy and turned its attention to recruiting graduates.

But the council’s inadequate rating somewhat restricted alternative recruitment options, with Barnet unable to access certain programmes, such as Frontline.

“We knew we had to do something different,” he admits.

So in July 2017, the council launched its own social work academy. The Barnet Children Practice Academy (BCPA) helps Barnet’s social workers and other family services staff of all levels to develop their professional skills.

Using the BCPA, Munday says the council was able to launch a grow-your-own campaign. He says the idea behind this was that students, who undertake a two-year course, would stick with the council during their training, bringing the desired stability.

Grow-your-own social workers

“Given the situation, we had a think about what we really needed and what we had to do and decided that we needed to get in some really good social workers who were going to commit to us for a few years and the best way of doing that was by getting in students.

“So, we developed our whole grow-your-own strategy and created a really good assisted year and the social workers who came out of that process were social workers who were really strong and they showed that through their work.

“Our emphasis on filling vacancies is now through our grow our own campaign.”

Munday reports the grow-your-own campaign has been very successful, with the council employing 15-20 social workers as a result.

“I think the campaign was critical because we had to do something different.

“Not all of the students stayed, but we made sure we kept the ones that we wanted to keep and did this by interviewing them really quickly, so that they knew that they were secure if they wanted a job in Barnet.”

Real-time learning

Key to the success of the grow-your-own campaign has been the role played by the council’s workforce development team, which contains two full-time practice workers, who support students on a day-to-day basis, and a group of practice educators.

Munday says the council moved the workforce development team within the quality assurance team, which is responsible for overseeing student performance, to produce a real-time feedback system, focused on improving students at pace.

“The quality assurance team are able to point out to practice educators if there is an issue, or whether a student is finding something difficult or has an issue with a certain type of practice.

“I think it’s quite a powerful tool as there’s no real delay in passing back information.”

Munday says the council also recently introduced an audit system to improve practice among all levels of the workforce.

This was picked up by Ofsted, who pointed out that trends and themes from audits were being used effectively to inform the training and development programme.

“There is a clear and established system of audits underpinning the quality assurance process. Audit findings are collated into quality assurance reports that highlight strengths and areas for development and next steps.”

Involving social workers in audit

Another point picked up by the watchdog was the fact that Barnet involved their social workers in the audit process, which Munday says was to ensure that “they got something out of” the process.

“If a practitioner discusses their work with somebody and has a dialogue which picks up the positives, employing phrases such as, ‘it could have been better if’, the social worker is learning in a different type way than if you just hand them an audit that says ‘your work requires improvement’.

“What we wanted to do is to make sure that social workers understand why they had been given a certain grade, what they need to do to improve and, if their work was rated as ‘good’, what needs to be done to make them ‘outstanding’.”

Despite proving successful, Munday says there was “quite a lot of kick-back” from social workers during the early stages about having their work rated.

He says many social workers would question why their worked had been graded as ‘inadequate’, while others asked why the council had chosen to audit practitioners’ work at all.

It was important to convince social workers that auditing was a learning opportunity, rather than something to get caught up on, says Munday.

“I don’t think there is ever a time when you can say learning or supervision is sorted, he says. “We have to continuously develop our staff around and get everybody to see it as something that is really useful and beneficial. It’s part of this learning culture that we want to try and create.”

Learning from elsewhere

Barnet’s improvement journey has not been without external support. Barnet began working with Essex County Council in 2016 on its improvement and this role was strengthened following the 2017 Ofsted report.

Munday says Essex helped pull his council through “most of the difficult stuff” and lay the foundation for improved services, but adds  that the county council did not drive Barnet’s improvement efforts.

Instead, he says, Barnet’s focus on checking the reports of Ofsted monitoring visits of other ‘inadequate’ councils and seeing how these authorities had improved was the key driver of the council’s speedy progression.

“I think what was really critical was the way we used monitoring visits as learning. So, if Ofsted said something or gave people an idea, we took note and used it. We used it as free consultancy to be honest”.

Munday adds another reason for the council’s quick upturn in fortunes was its willingness to make changes quickly.

He says that the current Ofsted inspection framework, introduced last year, requires council and leaders to act quickly in order to change fortunes; something which he admits “kickstarted” Barnet into action.

“Under the new framework, which I am very supportive of, you have six monitoring visits, which gives you roughly two years [to turn things around]. If you are delaying any of your progress, you won’t improve.

“Before you had eight, nine, ten or more monitoring visits, which gave you time [to think about what changes you want] but this new arrangement doesn’t give you time.”

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