Workforce Insights

Surrey County Council

In the spotlight

‘It feels like we’re really flying now’

Rachael Wardell
Rachael Wardell (Picture credit: Phil Adams)

Surrey’s plan for children’s services is working as it receives an improved rating from Ofsted

“Social workers report that they have felt well supported during the pandemic, both emotionally and professionally. They value the changes made by senior managers to improve the service, as well as the action taken to enable continuity of service to children and families during the pandemic.

“Leaders are implementing a clear and comprehensive improvement programme, based on a thorough understanding of current performance. They have established a strong foundation on which to improve services.”

Ofsted inspection report on Surrey’s children’s services, January 2022

Rachael Wardell, executive director for children, families and lifelong learning in Surrey, says Ofsted has now recognised what everyone in the local authority already knows: the department is headed in the right direction and the hard work is beginning to pay off.

“The language around a ‘requires improvement to be good’ rating is fair, though it feels a bit mean. It should nevertheless be a morale boost for everyone. I certainly hope it is,” she says.

“It’s a real testament to all the staff here. They’ve worked their socks off and they have a real passion and purpose in wanting to do better for children and families. It does feel as if there is a real sense of pride and community in working at Surrey now.”

Building on the excellent practice

Rachael points out that in 2018 Ofsted made 18 very sweeping recommendations and this time there was six recommendations, mostly in specific areas and primarily focused on consistency of practice.

“Surrey’s a big place so it will take a while to achieve that consistency across the whole county, but we have a lot of good practice and quite a bit of excellent practice now to build on.

“What I was pleased about is we knew where we were before Ofsted arrived. We didn’t need them to tell us what had improved and where we still need to improve. And the inspectors acknowledged that in their report.”

Rachael says more children are being returned home to their families safely, more children are with kinship carers when they are taken into care and inspectors commented that practice was now more family centred.

Investing in a permanent workforce

To reduce the variability of practice, Rachael knows recruitment and retention of high-quality social workers is key.

“The data tells us we have better stability among our social workers and newly qualified social workers, but senior and advanced social workers are a more fluid group because they are in such demand across the country.”

However, the improved rating means Rachael feels confident enough to take Surrey back into the memorandum of understanding on agency social worker pay rates in the south-east of England.

“We’ve been outside of it for a long time. I want this to be a signal that we now need social workers here for the long haul, who will dig in and build those long-term relationships that are so important for children and their families.”

Surrey is investing in a ‘grow your own’ career development policy and supports good practice through models of social work such as the family safeguarding approach, developed in Hertfordshire.

This will be further reinforced by the recruitment of Matt Ansell, previously Hertfordshire’s director of operations, as the director of safeguarding and family resilience at Surrey.

Corporate backing

Generally, the report noted a significant cultural change within the leadership at Surrey and this was not just attributed to those in children’s services but also the leader of the council and the chief executive.

Rachael believes that corporate backing for children’s services was not as strong after the 2015 inspection report and that this slowed Surrey’s improvement journey.

“Large authorities always take longer to turn around, but it shouldn’t take eight years even in an authority as big as Surrey. Now that we have that corporate support it’s palpable the difference it makes.”

She says this was evident even during the inspection itself.

“I had some lovely feedback where people said they could really feel the love from the rest of the council this time around. Practical things like the inspectors had computers and building passes ready for them when they arrived. It just showed that everyone was aware of how important it was and they wanted to help.”

Good foundations

Rachael attributes much of this essential groundwork to her predecessor, Dave Hill, alongside his work to improve the multi-agency partnership working across the county.

“Dave did a lot of the really tough work to lay the foundations for improvement. I was really pleased this was recognised in the inspection report even if they didn’t mention him by name.”

Surrey's former executive director of children's services, Dave Hill, who died in June

Surrey’s former executive director of children’s services, Dave Hill, who died in June 2020

Dave Hill tragically died in June 2020 just two years after he started working for Surrey’s children’s services.

“From a personal perspective I miss him,” Rachael says. “He would always have been one of the people I would have called for a chat if I’d hit a sticky patch during an Ofsted inspection, or at any other time.”

Overcoming the challenges of the pandemic

Rachael is even prouder that Surrey continued to improve during the pandemic, which made the daily and weekly social work task even tougher than normal.

“It’s been difficult for all of us. I’ve personally struggled with it because I’m used to walking the floor of a department – talking to social workers, being seen and ensuring I’m available.

“The sheer size of Surrey was already making that challenging, but the pandemic has made it even more so.”

She laughs as she remarks she has written a small novel in her weekly emails to staff to try and make up for the lack of personal contact.

“I think it’s really important that I recognise the great work that is taking place across the service, and that everyone knows what I, and the senior team, are doing as part of this joint effort.”

Evidence of a learning culture

Ofsted found more effective scrutiny in place, good performance data and a more active learning culture – particularly evident when things go wrong.

“Very sadly, in Surrey we’ve had several suicides of teenagers since the pandemic began,” Rachael explains.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand where things have gone wrong. We’ve worked in partnership so we can be more effective moving forward.”

Social worker caseloads have also improved in many parts of the service and inspectors noted that social workers now felt well supported.

But Rachael says there will be no slowing of momentum.

“This inspection report is encouraging but there’s still much more to do. I came here for the long haul and we have huge ambitions for Surrey. It feels like we’re really flying now.”

Would you like to investigate the career options at Surrey? Check out the video below on careers in the children’s services department or check out the employer profile for more information about working at Surrey.