“Northamptonshire’s improvement journey is gathering momentum following the transfer of children’s social care services into the trust arrangement.”
So said Ofsted inspectors in their monitoring visit earlier this year. They identified a key strength as leaders having a ‘clear line of sight to frontline practice’ and a good understanding of what still needs to change to improve outcomes for children.
This closeness in the relationship between senior leaders and frontline teams is seemingly felt by all social workers no matter what position or team.
Hayleigh Ashley, an apprentice social worker in a safeguarding and support team, says she has noticed how much more visible the senior leadership team is now.
“I feel like I really know Colin Foster, the chief executive. He doesn’t shy away from handing out his phone number. I would always take up an issue with my manager first but there is a kind of comfort in knowing that I could contact him directly if I needed to. The whole leadership team are focusing on relationship building with the teams in the same way we do with families I think.”
Jodi Sangster, a team manager in the disabled children’s team, says she was drawn by the opportunity to help the trust progress in its improvement journey.
“There are lots of working parties and groups on different topics looking at how we can change and streamline processes. Sometimes in local authorities it can feel hard for social workers to make their voice heard but here it doesn’t. The senior leadership team will always respond to a direct email the same day. It doesn’t feel like lip-service when they talk about listening to and involving social workers.”
Social worker ideas being taken on board
Jodi worked in another local authority for almost all of her 18-year career but moved to Northamptonshire because she wanted to develop her skills and help other social workers develop as well.
“I was really attracted by being part of, and able to contribute to Northamptonshire’s improvement journey,” she says.
Jodi already feels she has been able to do this after helping implement a new idea that is reducing caseloads in her team.
“In the disabled children’s team quite often there are large numbers of children on our caseload simply because they have a learning difficulty or a disability. They don’t need a social worker in their lives and it often feels oppressive to them to have one.”
The idea of reducing the amount of social work involvement in these families was already being discussed in the team, but during a manager’s meeting Jodi spoke about how this had been implemented in her previous authority.
“It was much quicker to implement here than at my previous authority. It was up and running within a few weeks. I guess I had the advantage of knowing all the pitfalls so I could discuss those with my senior manager. But there was no umming and ahhing about it – they agreed to put it in place for a year and see if it works.”
Some families have now had social work involvement reduced where it is appropriate and safe to do so. These families have a review once a year and support is offered to help them with care packages.
Similarly, Jodi says many of the systems seem more straightforward in an organisation that is focused purely on children’s services.
“It’s a small thing but it’s really easy to find all the policies. They’re in a single folder on the intranet and they’re all kept up to date. It makes life so much easier!”
Jodi and Hayleigh both say they feel very safe at Northamptonshire Children’s Trust.
Jodi says: “There’s definitely a positive culture here and in my experience that has to come from the top. Yes, there’s high challenge, and that’s only right, but it doesn’t come from a place of blame but a place of wanting to learn how we can work better with families.”
For Hayleigh, the smooth transition to the trust was vital as it occurred midway through her social work apprenticeship.
“I don’t think I’d still be here if it had been too much of an upheaval because I really value having a stable base. It makes me feel comfortable, supported and safe.”
Hayleigh was talent-spotted two years ago while working in the safeguarding and support team as a family support worker. She had impressed senior leaders sitting on a panel of a case that had to go to court.
The support of her practice manager, team manager and service manager through the apprenticeship application process, and now on her degree, has meant a lot to Hayleigh.
“I felt really lucky to have been one of only five apprentices selected and I won’t have any debt at the end of my degree which is important. It has also meant I’ve been able to progress. There’s no progression as a family support worker because the next step up always needs that social work qualification. But actually, I don’t think I could have done my degree without having worked as a family support worker and learnt those direct work skills. I’ve got an amazing practice educator who is now getting me to think more like a social worker and be able to take on that decision making responsibility.”
Able to make a difference
Kayode Odunlade, who is five weeks into a new role as service manager for the duty and assessment team, says that, similarly to Jodi, he was attracted by the chance to make a real difference.
“I was working as a locum team manager and I had no thought to go permanent if I’m honest. I’d never been tempted at any time in the past five to six years because I liked working in different authorities and seeing the different approaches.
“But I was strongly drawn to working permanently in Northamptonshire. I really like the positive and awesome atmosphere here and the fact that we all feel we’re part of something larger and have a role to play. There’s lots of scope for innovation and creativity here.”
Kayode felt he had a lot to contribute from his experience of working in so many different authorities. He sees a key part of his role as to motivate and help social workers feel confident about their practice.
“I’m excited about what we’re going to achieve,” he says.
Children also playing a role in the journey
And it’s not just social workers who are being heavily involved in the Northamptonshire change journey. Ofsted’s monitoring report highlighted the ‘inspiring’ Children In Care council and its participation in designing service improvements with support from senior leaders.
“Children were very proud to show inspectors their work and gave many powerful examples of the positive impact they are having on developing and improving services,” the report stated.
Inspectors also noted that the chief executive made personal contact with every social worker who expressed an interest in working for the trust and this active engagement, combined with improved working conditions, was helping to reduce staff turnover.
As part of its continued drive to improve working lives, Northamptonshire Children’s Trust is also about to announce a new offer for social workers, senior social workers and advanced practitioners. It will include a substantial welcome bonus, retention payments, flexible working options and payment of Social Work England registration.
If you are interested in finding out more about the new offer or the opportunities at Northamptonshire Children’s Trust then check out their employer profile or get in touch on NCTrustcareers@nctrust.co.uk