Since Lucy Butler became West Sussex’s executive director of children, young people and learning the council’s improvement journey has gathered pace. And for social workers like Amy, who was born, raised and started her social work career in West Sussex, the improvements are making a positive difference to her work daily.
“I started my career at West Sussex but left in June 2018 because of the pressured working environment,” says senior social worker Amy, who now works in assessment and intervention. “I wasn’t feeling good about my job and caseloads were very high. But I came back in August 2019 and even then, noticed caseload numbers were dropping.
“By October 2020, we were told cases would be no higher than 20 and our managers have been really focussed on enforcing that. It is only in the last few months, because of the pandemic, that numbers have fluctuated slightly.”
The reduced caseloads are linked to a change in how cases are referred and triaged, Amy believes. “We were getting an awful lot of case referrals based on vague information,” says Amy. “But I’ve noticed that there has been an increase in our multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) teams investigating and unpicking referrals before passing them on to us. In some instances, this has meant cases do not need to be escalated to us but can be handled by other more relevant departments, such as early help.”
Earlier this year the service introduced a single point of contact for anyone who had concerns about a child or young person.
Amy believes that this change has benefited families. “It helps with their understanding and makes transfer smoother,” she says. “Before, in my experience, a lot of families were confused when they got a new social worker, didn’t understand the process and this caused a lot of resistance. But what has helped is the new early help panel and family support and protection service coming to child protection conferences and being part of these conversations.”
Ensuring there is a good foundation to the service by introducing these structural changes, is one of the three pillars Lucy rolled out at the beginning of her tenure. The others were creating the right environment for a good service and developing an improved service model.
I think we have all the right ingredients – enough staff, committed workforce, and a committed council and determination from me to make things work….
Lucy came to West Sussex with experience in developing an inclusive way of working and delivering a practice model in family safeguarding while spending over three years as director of children’s services at Oxfordshire County Council. She is also focussed on redesigning services to ensure children and families get the support and level of service they deserve.
The work so far has not gone unnoticed. West Sussex’s commissioner for children, in his report in October 2020, identified that conditions of services were improving and were creating positive ways for the service to progress. Following on from the commissioner’s report, the Department for Education has agreed to let West Sussex keep control of its children’s services, with a review due at the end of this year.
Lucy is working to ensure there is a strong social work offer in terms of what people are getting paid, the environment they are working in, ensuring that the workload is right, and providing the change to make sure managers are in the right place to support frontline practice.
Amy believes that some of these changes are already taking shape. A pay review is scheduled for July 2021, and flexible working is encouraged. Amy currently works a nine-day fortnight and has access to a range of training options. Supervision is regular at a minimum of once per month.
Managers are helpful and will speak ad hoc about anything or book extra supervision sessions whenever needed. Managers are always available for her to speak to and the service has now built a permanent senior leadership team. Despite Covid making it a challenge for staff and managers to meet, Lucy communicates regularly through staff engagement events and her weekly newsletter to all staff in the department. As a result, Amy feels that team morale is high.
Lucy says: “I think it’s really exciting. We have all the right ingredients – enough staff, a committed workforce, a committed council, and determination from me that we are going to make it work and make a difference for children and families. We are also looking forward and working towards implementing a family safeguarding practice model. This is about ensuring families feel they have been ‘worked with and not done to,’ making positive changes which are beneficial and lasting for both children and families.”
Amy is also up-beat about her experiences there. She says: “West Sussex is a good place to work and we are on a positive journey of improvement. Sometimes you’ve got to hit the bottom before you can come back up. And we are building better relationships with children and families as well as our partners and that translates into better assessment and outcomes for children and families.”