Zero agency staff position down to focus on staff wellbeing, says newly ‘outstanding’ council’s DCS

North Tyneside children's services leader praises social workers' input on service development, including around upgrade of inadequate ICT system

Image of North Tyneside council headquarters, Wallsend (credit: Jhed2408 / Wikimedia Commons)
North Tyneside council headquarters, Wallsend (credit: Jhed2408 / Wikimedia Commons)

The director of children’s services (DCS) at a council freshly awarded an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grade has said that a focus on staff wellbeing and engagement helped the department to a position of needing no agency workers.

Inspectors who visited North Tyneside council – which along with Islington was awarded top marks last week – praised the supportive and nurturing environment for social work that had been created in the borough.

“After a period of relative turbulence last year, and despite fierce competition for social workers in the regional employment market, senior leaders have succeeded in achieving a stable workforce,” their report said. “There are very few vacancies. Staff turnover is low. Currently, the local authority does not employ a single agency social worker.”

In an interview with Community Care, Jacqui Old, who leads children’s and adults’ services on North Tyneside, said the council had to rethink its offer after some staff were tempted elsewhere in the wake of its previous inspection, which found services to be ‘good’.

“It created a challenge because we could not match, in terms of remuneration, some other local authorities, so we had to think differently,” she said. Along with investing in extra social workers to keep caseloads manageable, the council has introduced group supervision sessions and focused on career progression options, Old added – but she said it has also improved the softer job enhancements offered to social workers.

‘Staff wellbeing and self-care’

“We learned from the private sector in terms of [our offer] to attract and retain staff – things about staff wellbeing and self-care,” she said. “We worked with our leisure and public health departments, and have got free pilates and yoga, massage and discounted gym memberships [as well as] mental health and counselling services for staff.”

Old said that everything the council was offering had been based on suggestions from frontline staff, and that the aim was to send “a strong message that they are at the centre of us delivering, and recognising the strength and importance they bring”.

The DCS added that extensive staff input was behind another area Ofsted praised – the creative way in which North Tyneside had upgraded its IT, which had in the past been criticised for being barely fit for purpose.

“Particularly impressive is the way in which the local authority’s electronic case recording system has been adapted to ensure that it helps rather than hinders [the rollout of Signs of Safety across the safeguarding partnership]”, inspectors said.

Old, who admitted that “Noah would have thrown off his Ark” the previous case management system, said staff found its replacement, an off-the-shelf version of the LiquidLogic system, “good but not great” in terms of how it complemented Signs of Safety.

Frontline input a ‘fundamental shift’

“We have got a strategic partnership with LiquidLogic and Signs of Safety – we worked with them, and reconfigured the whole first module in terms of assessment and case management,” she said. “We got some of our staff to say [what they needed] – it’s been very practice-led, which might not sound like much but has been a fundamental shift from ICT staff saying, ‘I know best’ for frontline practitioners.

“It’s been staff saying, ‘No, you need to do that there, put this there,’ and them making those adjustments,” Old said, adding that the learning process was due to be shared nationally so other councils could use it.

Ofsted found North Tyneside’s broader implementation of Signs of Safety, which has faced scrutiny over its overall effectiveness, and uneven application in some areas, had made a “transformational impact”.

“It provides a common language with which to talk about and explore issues and concerns, needs and risks, dangers and
protective factors in a way that is easy to understand for parents, professionals and partners,” inspectors said.

Old said her council’s success in putting the framework into effect had been based on delivering “intense and system-wide” change rather than a “drip-drip” approach, introducing it over a period of less than 18 months, alongside the new case management system.

‘Early help is everybody’s business’

Echoing recent research findings that highlighted the importance of strong leadership buy-in when implementing any practice framework, Old added that she and other leaders had “driven from the top”.

“It was no good saying, staff can get on and do this, I needed personally to understand it and be committed – me and my senior team all did the training and spent lots of time out really working through it,” she said. “The rollout was quite tight and intense, and while it was painful it meant we got to a much stronger position where was embedded quickly.”

Old said the impact had been strongly felt across early help services and within North Tyneside’s multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), two areas where Ofsted said performance had significantly improved.

“In North Tyneside early help is everybody’s business,” inspectors said. “Partner agencies have wholeheartedly embraced the approach, advocated by the local authority, of talking with families in very simple and easy-to-understand terms about what they are worried about, what is working well and what the next steps should be.”

Within the 10-agency MASH, Ofsted said the use of a “common language and shared scaling system” enabled effective information sharing, with children’s cases being stepped up and down “appropriately and easily” between early help and children’s social care.

“There was a feeling in the past that decisions were being taken just by social care,” Old admitted. “The MASH allows everyone to feel as if they have contributed, and different perspectives and lenses are taken into account.

‘Keeping a grip in communities’

“The other part is the work going on in localities – we have four, and one of the decisions we took several years ago was to centre our early help model on schools,” she added.

Multi-agency early help teams are now clustered around secondary and primary schools, where they can readily offer support. “Those relationships and the responsiveness of those teams has really helped us manage complex issues and keep a grip in local communities,” Old said.

Despite Ofsted’s highly positive report, the DCS acknowledged that North Tyneside still had work to do in one or two areas identified for development during the visit.

One of these, the quality of life-story work with children in care – services for whom were North Tyneside’s only area rated ‘good’ rather than ‘outstanding’ – had been identified as a priority for the new financial year, the report said.

Addressing Ofsted’s other criticism, around the consistency of supervision, was largely a matter of bringing recording up to scratch, Old said.

“Talking to frontline staff, they tell me supervision is strong,” she said. “I think the quality is good but we let ourselves down in terms of writing some of it up – that is where we need to improve.”

2 Responses to Zero agency staff position down to focus on staff wellbeing, says newly ‘outstanding’ council’s DCS

  1. Joe Dee April 20, 2020 at 3:24 pm #

    You make it sound like agency staff equate to poor ofsted rating. I all the authorities that have been “resurrected” from their inadequates agency staff are the ones that hold the fort until these authorities have legs to stand on to implement their improvement plans.
    Give credit to these galant practitioners for helping to stabilise these authorities that are now making pariahs of agency staff

  2. Rosaline May 7, 2020 at 9:55 pm #

    Agency staff does not indicate instability, it is a sign of difficulties in recruiting, primarily due to organisational reputation and a poor recruitment package. Leadership must be strong and focussed, not suggesting inadequacies are caused due to the status of contracts. It is important to remember the practice and actions of Social Workers must be subject to quality assurance by line managers. A robust quality assurance system would detect worries and effective leadership ensures these are responded to.