A London borough’s children’s services have risen from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ in six years as the council confirmed that it would be extending the contract of the company that has delivered the success until 2026.
In a report this week, Ofsted said services in Kingston had continuously improved since it received a good rating in 2015, on the back of a senior leadership focused on understanding and enhancing practice quality, investment in the workforce and strong political commitment.
In 2012 and 2013, the inspectorate had rated services as inadequate, leading it to work more closely with its good-rated neighbour, Richmond, culminating in the establishment in 2014 of Achieving for Children (AfC) – a company co-owned by the two councils – to run children’s services in both areas.
Earlier this month, Richmond (still rated good) and Kingston agreed to jointly recommission AfC to run their services until 2026. AfC has also run services in Windsor and Maidenhead since 2017, and is contracted to do with until 2024, with that council owning a 20% stake in the company (Kingston and Richmond hold 40% each).
‘Relentless’ focus on improvement
Key to Kingston’s improvement from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ was what Ofsted described as leaders’ “relentless focus on understanding the quality of practice and acting decisively to improve services”.
This has included tackling a lack of local fostering and residential provision, resulting in children being placed far from home, by commissioning additional local services, and improving contingency plans on child protection cases and record keeping.
Investment in the workforce has been instrumental in reducing caseloads, which inspectors said was enabling consistently outstanding social work practice, while training was regularly reviewed to focus on priority areas.
Staff were “unanimously positive about working in Kingston”, saying that managers provided challenge and support in equal measure.
AfC managing director Ian Dodds said that moving from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ had been about consistency. “When we were judged good it was about saying that to get to oustanding, practice needs to be good for all the children and families we work with.”
‘Particularly strong’ corporate parenting
As with leadership, Kingston was graded oustanding for its services for children in care and care leavers as a result of “particularly strong” corporate parenting. Children only went into care when necessary and appropriate, and many who did were supported to live with extended family through special guardianship orders, for which assessments were “thorough”.
When children were unable to return home, permanence planning started early, while children in foster care developed secure attachments and achieved “very positive” outcomes. The leaving care service was ambitious for young people, inspectors said, visiting them regularly and purposefully and responding to their feedback, for example through the implementation of a pathway planning tool instigated by care leavers themselves.
Though services for children who need help and protection were ‘good’ rather than ‘outstanding’, inspectors praised the quality of assessments, which effectively took into account identity and culture, and the swiftness with which social workers responded to risk.
Ofsted also highlighted the calibre of direct work, which it said gave practitioners a good understanding of chidren’s lives and experiences and helped parents understand their concerns. Inspectors also said that regular, high-quality reflective supervision helped social workers have the skill and confidence to deliver consistently good direct work.
“We pride ourselves on relationship-based practice and the fact that Ofsted has recognised that is really good,” said Dodds. “I’m very pleased with the whole report.”
Extended contract for Achieving for Children
The extended arrangement with Achieving for Children will involve some variations to the existing contract with Kingston and Richmond, said a report to a meeting last week of Kingston’s children’s and adults’ care and education committee.
Dodds, who will leave his current post to become director of children’s services across both boroughs in January, said the contract was reviewed each year, changes were made regularly, and that he wasn’t envisaging significant variations as a result of the contract extension. One possible change would be to formalise work AfC is already doing around mental health in schools, he added.
Though Dodds will be seconded to AfC he will report to the chief executives of the two councils. From 2014-18, the DCS post was first held by the then chief executive of AfC, Nick Whitfield, and then by his deputy, Rob Henderson.
However, that changed last year with the appointment of Pauline Maddison as Kingston’s interim DCS and James Thomas to the equivalent role in Richmond, both of whom reported to their respective chief executives despite being seconded into AfC.
Dodds said this change was designed to ensure that the statutory position of DCS reported into the council, which is in line with statutory guidance. However, he said that the fact that Kingston and Richmond, with Windsor and Maidenhead, jointly owned AfC, meant that there could not be a traditional commissioner-provider relationship.
“AfC is part of them. I will be seconded because otherwise it would be a purely commissioning DCS post and this is not about that,” he added.