In a little room, overlooking the peaceful River Medway with its ancient castles, sit social workers Donna, Joel, Tatenda, Kerry and Stephanie.
They are talking about why they have stayed working for Medway Council despite an Ofsted inspection condemning almost all services as inadequate in 2019.
Against the backdrop of the adjoining open-plan office, which hums with the industry of Medway’s children’s services, they cite a strong, supportive atmosphere that survived even in the darkest periods.
New approach from senior managers
But they are also enthused about the recent changes put in place and the new approach from senior managers.
Senior social worker Joel comments: “We never used to have much contact with the directors but now Ian [director of children’s services] and Jean [interim assistant director] will regularly come and speak to us and they know our cases. It’s nice to feel that if we do have concerns, we can go through the hierarchical system but we can also just approach them directly.”
Kerry agrees that it feels as though managers are now listening to staff and refers to regular email updates and a staff improvement forum.
Jean Imray, interim assistant director in charge of children’s social care, feels strongly this should be the foundation of Medway’s children’s services culture.
“I believe you should manage your social workers the same way you expect your social workers to work with families.
You ask what they think would help and support them; you actively listen and you work with them to achieve effective change.
“If we are not working that way with our staff then how can we expect this approach to be embedded in their practice?”
An initial retention survey with Community Care, completed before the Ofsted report was published, became the springboard for two ‘staff engagement’ forums in the autumn of 2019.
These listening events made it clear social workers wanted to get rid of the ‘pod’ system, where social workers kept the same child throughout their journey through the system. Medway has now returned to a more traditional structure of teams.
“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the pod system,” Jean points out “but it would have needed at least double the number of social workers to make it work effectively here.”
Bringing caseloads down
Experienced at kickstarting a journey of change in local authorities that need to improve, Jean says Ofsted rightly identified that caseloads were far too high – up to 50 cases for some social workers.
“It’s not reasonable to hold people to account when they have a caseload of between 30-50 and are having to do everything. But now we are steadily bringing those caseloads down. The next phase is a real focus on quality of practice.”
Caseloads are now, on average, about 24 for social workers and about 15 for adolescent teams. Jean says they are working to a target of a maximum of 18 for social workers in frontline teams and between 10-15 for those in the adolescent team.
She says the investment from the council for extra posts has been key and this has included not just social workers but also additional business support staff and family workers. Intensive work on thresholds and strengthening the early help offer is also in train.
Staff buy-in accelerating the pace of change
The shift back to the team structure, plus the creation of a new adolescent 16-18 team, has happened in the space of months and Jean credits the pace of the change to the staff buy-in.
Staff were asked which team they wanted to work in to ensure workers are in the areas where they feel their strengths and passions lie.
Donna, a newly qualified social worker, says already the assessment team feels more stable than the previous structure and social workers in the team have really ‘gelled’ together.
Kerry is one of the social workers who did prefer working with the same child throughout their journey but she agrees caseloads were unmanageable. She’s also positive about the creation of a team for adolescents, who were a group she felt ended up at the bottom of the pecking order in the ‘pod’ system.
Tackling both big and small issues
Medway is on a two- to five-year improvement journey and Jean acknowledges it will also need a stable leadership team. She points out that candidates for her own job are currently being shortlisted and interviewed.
She herself now often works on the open-plan floor with the rest of the teams to help her understand and hopefully resolve the small, but equally important, daily irritations for staff.
“The survey identified a real issue with having to crawl under tables to plug in laptops and equipment and after having to do it myself each day I could see why! So, I ordered in some cable extension towers.”
Attuned to the horrors of hotdesking for most social workers, Jean also says the shift to team structures means social workers have more permanent desks. Medway is also in the process of securing more free car parking spaces for staff at a nearby high-rise car park.
Expectations of quality
The next phase of work is focused on career progression, embedding the Signs of Safety model that has been introduced and increasing expectations of quality of practice.
“Signs of Safety is just a tool and it won’t make a poor social worker great, but it can make a good social worker outstanding because it helps embed the right culture,” says Jean. “The child must be at the centre of our thinking. Behind every decision, every policy, every assessment must be constant questioning about what is the best thing for individual children.”
While she makes no apology for the increased rigour of quality assurance systems that are about to be put in place, she adds that Medway’s strongest asset has always been its staff.
“There are some really loyal and committed staff and they were just waiting to be allowed to do the right thing.
Sense of belonging
“I’ve worked in social work offices that are far more posh but actually they don’t compare to the atmosphere on this floor. It’s fantastic. They really support each other.”
Donna, Joel, Kerry, Stephanie and Tatenda all agree. The support from line managers and teams – whether it was on a student placement, on arrival from India or in coping with a new baby – is a common theme that emerges as they chat.
Joel sums it up: “There’s definitely a real sense of belonging and feeling valued here in Medway.”
Are you interested in working for Medway’s children’s services? Check out current opportunities for group managers, senior and social worker roles.