Rotherham council’s Louise Pashley, England’s 2019 overall Social Worker of the Year, couldn’t have cared less for the pomp and ceremony that came with winning the award.
In fact, she didn’t even know the award existed until her name was called out at the end of the ceremony. She was just thrilled that the spotlight was finally on leaving care, her area of passion and expertise.
Last November, Pashley was named overall winner of England’s Social Worker of the Year and children’s team leader of the year.
A self-described “Rotherham girl”, Pashley has worked for the council for 26 years and now manages one of its two leaving care teams.
Leaving care rated ‘inadequate’
In 2014, the year in which an independent inquiry issued a devastating verdict on the council and partners’ response to child sexual exploitation, Ofsted rated the council’s leaving care service as ‘inadequate’, saying it could not assure itself that young people were safe.
Much has changed since the explosive 2014 report, which made a conservative estimate that more than 1,400 children were sexually exploited over a 16-year period in the Yorkshire town and threw into sharp focus issues around sexism, race, and how consent was viewed by organisations.
In the wake of the report, the government made child sexual exploitation a national policing priority, Ofsted started including how local authorities responded to the topic more prominently in inspections and the issue has gained a higher profile than ever before.
Pashley steered Rotherham’s leaving care service through the “particularly turbulent” period that followed and while she says she “wouldn’t want to relive it”, she believes the local authority is better for it.
“We were under a lot of scrutiny and it was a very difficult period of time for sure, but my heart and passion is invested in Rotherham’s young people so it never occurred to me that we couldn’t get through it or turn things around,” Pashley says.
The biggest challenges lay “outside the building”, she adds, citing intense media pressure and hostility toward Rotherham’s social workers.
Outside the council building we were literally spat at by people and called names, there were a lot of [media] camps outside we had to regularly walk through and we couldn’t show our badges.”
In February 2015, the government intervened and appointed five commissioners to take responsibility for Rotherham’s services and drive improvements.
“Having the commissioners come in was really difficult, but actually they came in with a very clear focus and allowed us to make the journey with them,” says Pashley.
“It was very inclusive even at that particular time when it was hard going, they were very keen to listen and understand where we needed to travel to,” she adds.
In 2017, the Ofsted rated the leaving care service as ‘outstanding’, saying that “a skilled and dedicated team of staff keeps in constant contact with the young people to ensure that they stay safe and are protected against harmful behaviours”. Then communities secretary James Brokenshire then withdrew the remaining three commissioners and returned control of all services to Rotherham in September 2018.
Pashley says the transformation of the service “wasn’t a one-man band by any means”.
“The strength was in the team; we supported each other throughout the process, we communicated clearly and if someone had a particularly bad experience we supported them and made sure they weren’t isolating themselves.”
The making of a good manager
Award judges described her as a manager “who leads by example” and “always demands the best for care leavers”.
So what makes an effective manager in social work?
According to Pashley: “You’ve got to learn to adapt and you have to actively listen to your social workers, their views, feelings and what their gut is saying.
“You also have to understand the strengths of your social workers and pull those out,” she says.
“We talk also about relationship-based practice and that for me is the key element, a strong relationship between the young person and social worker and a smooth journey through transition is the ultimate goal.
“We have 340 care leavers in Rotherham and while I can’t understand every single one of them personally, I can be confident in the fact my social workers and personal advisors know each young person really well.”
It’s important also to take ownership of both the positives and negatives, she says.
“You have to be proud of the good pieces of work you’re doing. It took quite a while for us to stop assessing things as inadequate, so when we’re looking at something now we’re not just focusing on what went wrong, we’re looking at what went well.”
What’s next for Pashley?
While Pashley is proud of how far the service has come, she says the challenge now is working out how to “sustain the outstanding” through periods of not being able to recruit and other forms of adversity.
“I eventually want people around the UK to be able to contact me and ask how we sustained a longstanding leaving care service and I would be able to share how we managed to do that,” she said.
Rotherham is now a member now of the national benchmarking leaving care forum, a network of over 100 authorities whose role is to share good practice.
“Nationally what might be our key areas in Rotherham mightn’t be someone else’s, but it’s helpful to share good pieces of work.”
Locally, the service is focused on equipping young people with good budgeting skills, particularly if they’re on universal credit. Pashley says the service also focuses heavily on employability and has worked hard to foster solid links with local training providers.
“Rotherham is a reasonably deprived area so it’s about building young people’s aspirations to be above that expectation of a Rotherham young person at 18 and building that confidence and trying to break the trend of the majority of young people being on universal credit.
“It’s not about universal credit being a plan, it’s a contingency or what we fall back on as a last resort,” she says.
Pashley is passionate about improving the profile of the personal advisor role and is constantly pushing for legislation or a national response around how it can be developed.
“I would like to think that nationally we would recognise the personal advisor role as being a significant transitional role and start paying it as such,” she says.
But otherwise, it’s business as usual for Pashley.
“There’s far too much for me to do in Rotherham that I still need to carry on with, my passion and my heart is Rotherham and as long as I work in social work I’ll be here.”