A glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel? A new era for Torbay’s children

A sponsored feature from Torbay Council

Nancy Meehan, director of children's services, Torbay Council
Nancy Meehan, director of children's services, Torbay Council

It’s fair to say that Torbay Council’s children’s services department has faced a difficult few years after it was judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in 2016 and 2018, but a monitoring visit at the start of the year acknowledged that signs of progress were starting to be made. This was welcome news, with senior leaders committing to supporting a robust improvement plan.

In February, Nancy Meehan, who was interim director of children’s services at the time of the monitoring visit, was confirmed in post, so it was onwards and upwards. And then a worldwide pandemic hit.

This is what Nancy has to say about not only maintaining ‘business as usual’ during a pandemic, but what has been achieved since March in terms of Torbay’s ongoing improvement journey.

By Nancy Meehan, director of children’s services, Torbay Council

Like many local authority teams across the country, staff had to quickly adapt to a new way of working to ensure we could continue to provide essential support and services to our most vulnerable children and families. The question I asked myself at the time, was, “Is this going to mean a halt to, or even slow the pace of our improvement journey?”

In a word the answer is, no. Of course, it put additional pressures on the service, but we’ve still been able to make a number of significant developments to improve outcomes across a range of work streams.

One of the most significant successes has been the stability in the workforce which, in just 6 months, has seen the reliance on agency staff across the service reduce from 41% to 28%. Not only has this delivered significant cost savings, but it’s great for staff and their overall morale, not forgetting the benefits to the children and families we work with.

Our goal is to make Torbay a family-friendly place. The partnership between children’s services and Torbay Youth Trust is a great example of how statutory and voluntary community services are working together to help us deliver our long-term strategies of ensuring young people and families are healthy, make positive choices and influence their own futures.

Despite the pandemic, Torbay Youth Trust has expanded its offer of support to the young people that need it most. It was particularly touching to hear an interview on the Radio 4 Today programme, when one our young carers spoke openly about how vital the support had been to her and her Dad during the first national lockdown.

Back in September, I welcomed 14 newly qualified social workers to our assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) programme and launched our in-house learning academy. This ambitious project represents a game-changing new investment in social worker professional development to help all social care staff build their professional skills and futures with us.

Already our NQSWs are embracing the ethos of the academy, are supporting each other as they explore the challenges that social work can bring, and are gaining invaluable knowledge and capability by working with experienced social workers on ‘real life’ cases. Rachel Setter, head of the learning academy, has been instrumental in driving the benefits of the academy forward and is already planning for our next ASYE intake.

Not only are newly qualified social workers being given development opportunities, our advanced social worker practitioners and team managers have also started new learning programmes, which have been designed to focus on being a good leader, quality assurance and change management.

We are absolutely committed to having a highly skilled and trained workforce so our families can receive the high-quality service they expect and deserve.

As we visibly continue to improve the quality of work to children and families, we’ve seen an increase in the number of Torbay households coming forward to offer a home for some of our most vulnerable children. Since the start of the financial year, 15 new families have been approved to become fostering families, with a further 17 going through the assessment stage. The increase in local placements being available has meant fewer young people have had to go into residential care placements, many of which are outside of the local area.

Protecting our children and young people’s emotional wellbeing is always going to be a priority for us. Whilst we did see an initial drop in referrals, we have since seen an increase of around 40%. This isn’t surprising as, nationally, more and more families have gone into crisis as a result of the pandemic, and it will be some time before we know the true impact the lockdowns have had on the emotional wellbeing of children and families.

But here in Torbay, we aren’t shying away from those challenges. We’ve introduced new ways of working, which put families at the heart of the decision-making process. All of our social workers are trained in restorative practice methods, which aim to build, strengthen and repair relationships between children and their families.

In August, we took our family group conferencing (FGC) service back in-house, with 76 FGC referrals already underway. By switching to a model of working with families, instead of being seen to work against them, we’re decreasing the need to escalate cases to the statutory services which we know can put more pressure on the family.

Are we perfect in Torbay? No, we’re not, there is plenty to still be done, but there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as we prepare for our next Ofsted inspection, where we are striving to receive a good rating.

If you would like to join a team that has lowered caseloads, transformed training, launched new supervision models, developed brilliant external partnerships and introduced sector-leading technology then I’d love to hear from you.

Find out more about social work opportunities at Torbay Council.

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