For the second time in three years, Essex County Council was named employer of the year at the Social Worker of the Year Awards, with practitioner Melanie Noel also picking up the adult social worker of the year gong.
These are among several awards the council – rated outstanding for children’s services by Ofsted – has picked up at the annual celebration of social work in recent years.
For this year’s employer of the year category, judges found that: “Essex demonstrated a real commitment to deliver a typically high level of service its communities and, crucially, to support and nurture its staff and their continued development.”
This is very much the experience of staff working in West Essex – one of four quadrants across the county in which services are organised.
‘A caseload that allows innovative practice to flourish’
“Essex is an outstanding authority and a leader in practice improvement,” says Michelle Hayden-Pepper, director for local delivery in children’s services in West Essex. “In West, caseloads are manageable, they are under 15 children in [long-term] family support and protection teams.
“It’s a caseload that allows innovative practice to flourish. We are able to stop and reflect and staff are well supported to do that.”
On the adult social care side, service manager Annelise Barns says: “Caseloads are of a manageable level and cover a varying degree of complexity based on social workers’ skill base.”
Children and families service manager Bianka Lang, who is responsible for the family support and protection teams, family time and support service and family centre in the quadrant, says: “The quality of practice is high because we are a learning workspace and we really understand reflective practice, from senior level to newly qualified.”
The learning focus is enriched by the quadrant having lots of students – including through Frontline and Step Up to Social Work – as well as newly qualified practitioners.
A learning environment
However, it goes far beyond formal learning.
Service manager for assessment and intervention and children and young people with disabilities Kiran Box says: “We encourage shared learning and if someone has a particular area of interest they will do a presentation for colleagues and share their learning. For example, there was one recently on inclusion of father in social work assessments.”
The focus on learning is coupled with opportunities for development, says Lisa Smith, service manager in adult social care.
In monthly management supervision sessions, staff are encouraged to identify areas of practice they would like to develop, leading to opportunities for secondments to other teams or simply taking on work in another practice area, helping them to develop themselves.
As in the rest of Essex, social workers wanting to develop in practice have the opportunity to apply for various roles to support their development in the next stages, This could include senior practitioner roles, while for those who are looking to move into management, deputy team manager positions provide the ideal stepping stone.
‘West is Best’
Underpinning it all is a strong and supportive ethos, which has been vital during Covid-19.
“We say ‘West is Best’ because there’s such a sense of belonging,” says Annelise.
“Because we are such a supportive group within West, it was easier to adapt to working under Covid-19.”
Lisa adds: “Morale is strong. Nobody says, ‘that’s not my job’. If someone’s not coping, everyone pitches in to support them.”
A diverse area
West Essex is a diverse area, both in its communities and its geography. It stretches from Epping, just outside London but also incorporating the forest, through urban Harlow to the predominantly rural Uttlesford.
“We are a very diverse community that stretches quite a distance,” says Lisa. “Harlow is very densely populated, Uttlesford is vastly spread and rural, with the Epping area having a mixture of both.”
Michelle says it offers excellent links to London, while Kiran says it provides “decent affordable housing” that would be a strong draw for people looking to move out of the capital, along with good schools.
The diversity of the communities West Essex serves is reflected in the leadership role it has taken across the county on anti-racist practice.
Leading on anti-racist practice
This has included running workshops on Black Lives Matter and setting up a black workers’ support group.
“We are pushing the anti-racist practice agenda,” says Kiran. “We have high numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and many more black families [than the rest of the county]. We have a growing number of black staff and so we are making sure they have opportunities to grow and develop.”
In children’s services, all statutory social work teams fall under the responsibility of the quadrant. On the adults’ side, West encompasses physical and sensory impairment, learning disability and autism, older adult mental health and discharge to assess teams, three community support teams, two early intervention teams and the single point of access service.
Kiran says working within a quadrant enables a “one-service approach”, across different teams and between adults’ and children’s services, that would be challenging across a bigger geographical footprint.
“The quadrant stops things being too siloed,” says Michelle. “We aim to work in a way that everyone is part of the same service. We believe that relationships matter so we ensure children and families get the right service at the right time so they can build those relationships that can effect change.”
This is in tune with the strengths-based practice model Essex practises across the county.
“We’ve got relatively low numbers of children on child protection plans and coming into care so we are working on the premise of children being best off with their families,” says Kiran. “It’s easy to say but we practice that really well in West.”
Michelle adds: “It’s a very clear practice model. We believe children are best placed within their families where safe to do so, and when we do bring children into care it is well considered and timely. What we don’t do is bring them into care without a clear care plan and a reflection on the impact of our intervention as that in itself can be harmful.”
In adults’ services, there is a similar strengths-based focus. Lisa adds: “In adult social care, we ensure that the adult remains central to any assessment or review promoting a strengths-based approach and a holistic overview.”
It is an exciting time to be practising in West Essex. On the adults’ side, under a new director, the service is deepening its integration with health and other services. The single point of access is becoming a care co-ordination centre, providing an integrated front door with the health service.
And teams are going to be working across six primary care network aligned core teams ( PACTs) that are aligned with community health services and local care providers, ensuring that people are not having to repeat their stories to multiple services.
On the children’s side, Michelle says: “We are thinking about innovation and change. We are looking to expand our unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’s service. We are getting involved to support children in need in school. There are lots of innovative programmes, in which Essex is leading the way.”
Kiran says: “If you’re a social worker who wants to practise good relationship-based social work, going back to your roots, this is the place for you. Relationship-based practice is our bread and butter.”
If you are interested in working in West Essex or the wider county, check out the latest vacancies here.