When Ofsted upgraded Warrington council’s children’s services from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ this month, it took the rare step of singling out a manager besides the director of children’s services for praise.
The department’s operational director was “highly focused on ensuring that frontline staff and managers understand what makes good practice, and is determined in her role as practice leader to see this exemplified in all interventions with children and families”, the report said.
She also “determinedly and prominently promotes and expects high standards from frontline staff and managers, and is instrumental in creating a favourable operational environment for good social work to thrive”.
That operational director, Amanda Amesbury, joined the council in May 2018, and saw immediately that Warrington was an authority that with “the right leadership and support” could achieve a good rating. Making this happen over the subsequent year, Amesbury says, has been about culture.
“What I mean by that is the relationships that we have with our social workers, our children, our peers, and our partners, including foster and residential carers,” she says.
She says when she arrived at the council, there was still a strong focus on compliance – checking that visits had been done and assessments and reviews were being completed in accordance with the relevant timescales. This had been needed to shift from the ‘inadequate’ rating children’s services received in 2009, to ‘requires improvement’ in 2015.
But to push onto good, she says, they now needed to be looking at the environment, the way social workers are treated, the training they receive – “that whole system approach”.
“What I want to know as a leader is yes, you’ve seen your children and they are safe, but what was the purposefulness of that visit and where’s the evidence of the direct work?
“The language that we started using was all about getting that evidence onto the child’s file, so when they read it as an adult, they can see exactly what you did and why.”
Choosing a practice model
One of Amesbury’s first steps was to undertake a survey to determine what staff wanted their model of social work practice to be – because there wasn’t one particular model in place, and a strengths-based approach wasn’t being consistently applied, she says. This was picked up by an Ofsted focused visit in January 2018, when inspectors found work underway to develop a strengths-based model but “the pace of this has been too slow”.
“Everybody needed to align behind one ethos and one approach – I had no red lines in that, my only requirement was that it should be a strengths-based, relationship model.”
The council opted to go with systemic practice, which Amesbury says made “absolute sense” as she was undertaking the practice leadership programme with the Centre for Systemic Social Work, which is funded by the Department of Education, at the time.
She says that being on the programme helped her to become confident in the knowledge that being a leader who focuses on strengths-based practice was the right way to work, and she was able to bring in learning and new ideas from the course to Warrington.
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“People were ready for embracing a social work model and relational practice and all I’ve done is walk the floor regularly and build relationships with my social workers,” she adds.
“If you have those relationships and social workers feel supported, they will thrive. If social workers are thriving, they will provide the best service they can for children and families.”
‘High challenge, high support’
As the latest Ofsted report noted, Amesbury promotes high standards and has focused on ensuring practitioners and managers know what good looks like.
“There’s a mantra in the service ‘high challenge, high support’ – we live by that,” she says.
“I see my job – and we’ve positioned all managers in the same way – as holding the mirror up on practice, having high expectations, but absolutely underpinning that with support.”
One example of how that’s been achieved is Amesbury’s overhaul of what were previously known as performance meetings, where social workers would be brought together to have a discussion about performance, which she has rebranded as staff engagement sessions.
“We talk to social workers about some of the big initiatives around the country, how practice is developing, how we need to be operating and get feedback from people.
“We didn’t take our eye off the ball on compliance but we stopped presenting ourselves in that way and I think that’s led to social workers presenting themselves differently too.”
Consistent social work
The Ofsted inspection found that most social work practice for children on child protection and child in need plans was of a “consistently high standard” and having a positive impact.
It also highlighted the benefits of a new service structure that Amesbury helped implement, which ensures children can receive support from the same social worker – from the point of an assessment through to the stage when the case is stepped down or closed.
She says the council has historically had a traditional approach to social work, with a duty and assessment team who deal with referrals and initial assessment, before a child is transferred to one of the longer-term child protection, child in need, or permanency teams.
I looked at some of our data and some children were having four or five social workers in the space of six months, without any staff leaving or there being a good reason for it.”
“So I decided we needed to implement a process that we’ve called ‘the end to end’.”
This means, Amesbury adds, there are six children in need teams who do the duty work every six weeks, and when they pick up new referrals, they keep that child right the way through – it’s only if the child comes into long-term care that there will be change of worker.
“The reason for that was children on our Children in Care Council told us they didn’t want us to get rid of the permanence services because they liked having a dedicated worker who supports just them, without the rest of the demands – like child protection cases.
“So when our young people said that, we said we would only do it up to that point.”
Doing more to put the child at the centre
This is a strong example of putting the voice of the child at the heart of services, but Amesbury says for the council to progress to an outstanding rating – the discussions for how they can get there are already underway – then this is an area that needs more work.
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“If you read a care plan or assessment in Warrington or go to our corporate parenting panel, then the child’s voice is absolutely there, but it’s still not prominent enough.
“For example, we want care leavers to be actively involved in delivering and providing services for care leavers and to be getting to that stage of really innovative practice.”
Ofsted also said the council needed to make its multi-agency safeguarding hub’s screening of repeat contacts for teenagers experiencing neglect more effective – and Amesbury says this will be a big area for Warrington “to be getting its teeth into” next.
The council will need to juggle budget and demand pressures as it continues to move forward in its improvement journey and Amesbury says trying to maximise the impact of the services they already have in place will be one of the challenges going forward.
“The other challenge is the retention of good staff – one of my biggest worries is that we’ve just got to ‘good’ and will that mean all my staff are going to get poached,” she adds.
“But I am committed to making sure they continue to feel supported, valued and invested in here, so that they do continue to see Warrington as their social work home.”
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