In early 2019, Blackpool council faced losing control of its children’s services after a damning Ofsted inspection in late 2018 found widespread shortfalls in social work practice.
Its vacancy rate ballooned from 7.4% in 2018 to 29% in 2019, with a similar rise in the proportion of agency staff, on the back of its inadequate rating.
Subsequent improvements led government-appointed commissioner Helen Lincoln to recommend that the North West authority keep control of its services, in a report in the same year.
However, the pandemic hit the town hard, given its significant levels of deprivation and dependence on the tourism industry.
Nevertheless, subsequent Ofsted visits have found the council making steady progress in its children’s services. Its latest monitoring visit, in January, focused on the front door and found Blackpool was recognising risk and responding to it in a timely way.
Now, Victoria Gent, who joined Blackpool as director of children’s services last April, is looking to the council’s next full inspection, due this autumn, in which she expects the authority to improve on its inadequate rating .
Key to improvements to date has been increased stability among its management workforce, she says.
While Ofsted found “significant” management turnover and weak oversight in 2018, its latest visit said “significant” progress had been made to recruit a team of permanent managers, with oversight at the front door “robust”.
It praised the council’s investment in training for less-experienced managers and Gent’s “close oversight of exit interviews” to inform future retention strategies.
Stable workforce is key
Gent, who joined Blackpool after more than 20 years’ working in various social work and management roles at Lancashire council, says she inherited an overreliance on agency managers.
“It wasn’t a total agency management team but it was more agency managers than we would want,” she adds.
Within the past six months, the council has reduced its number of agency managers to just two out of around 50 overall, which Gent says “has made a huge difference to the stability”.
“If you are trying to deliver an improvement plan, working with your management team, you wouldn’t want half of them to leave and then you’d have to start it all again,” she adds.
Having a permanent management team in place means frontline social workers are “much more likely to stay and invest with us”, which enables the authority to be “far more on top of” many of the improvements it must make.
Reduced vacancies and agency usage
Latest government workforce figures show Blackpool’s agency social worker rate has halved, to 15.2%, from 2019 to 2021, while its vacancy rate is down from 29% to 18.7%.
However, on its latest visit, Ofsted said there was still a significant number of newly qualified social workers and agency staff across the service managing very complex cases of domestic abuse, poor mental health and chronic neglect.
Gent says her work overseeing exit interviews has led to a significant decrease in social workers leaving Blackpool in recent months.
“We know that we can work much more flexibly in terms of our staffing. We try to be responsive to our workers and think how we can better support them and retain them,” she says.
A bigger challenge is recruiting staff, with the council’s inadequate rating exacerbating the already difficult task of attracting social workers in the North West of England, Gent adds.
Councils ‘drawing on the same pool of workers’
“There is definitely a reduced number of social workers out there and that combined with the challenges we’ve got of an improvement plan, it does make recruiting social workers really challenging,” she says. “Local authorities are often drawing on the same pool of workers.”
Blackpool has a partnership with local universities as well as Step Up to Social Work, which Gent says is an important part of the council’s recruitment drive because “if we get students to us in the final placement they are very likely to stay and commit”.
The council is also looking at implementing a more flexible working approach on the back of increased use of remote communication between team members during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We know going forward we don’t intend to work nine to five, Monday to Friday, [where] people need to be in the office every single day,” she adds.
“I think it’s about having a proportionate and sensible balance that supports our staff and makes sure that we maintain good physical contact with families, but recognises that we know that we’ve learnt from Covid and we can work in a different way.”
Early help is essential
Blackpool has published strategies on early help and neglect since its inadequate judgment, which Gent says were important to address the challenges in the community in Blackpool.
“It is an area of high deprivation and Covid has had an impact for our families. So, trying to get that support in as early as we can for families is absolutely essential. We are very early on in that journey. We launched the [early help] strategy in November so we have a long way to go with it,” she says
In its 2018 inspection, Ofsted found some children were living with chronic neglect for long periods of time.
Blackpool’s neglect strategy, published the following year, said the council aimed to “ensure that all agencies are able to recognise neglect at the earliest opportunity and provide an appropriate and timely response, and evaluate our practice and its effectiveness so we can assure ourselves of its quality and can continuously improve”.
Progress since then has been evident but, according to Ofsted reports, stuttering. A monitoring visit in September 2021 found “management grip” had improved in cases of long-term neglect, but some children continued to experience this because of delays in escalating child protection cases to the pre-proceedings stage of the public law outline.
‘I will not stop until we get to good’
Blackpool no longer has a commissioner assigned to it but remains under the oversight of the Department for Education through an improvement adviser, who will remain in place until the authority is reinspected.
Gent says she expects the council to come out of its ‘inadequate’ rating at the next inspection, due in the autumn, but does not specify which grade she anticipates the council achieving.
“I am confident that we will come out of ‘inadequate’. Our ambition is to get to ‘good’ for Blackpool, and the work in Blackpool will not stop until we get to ‘good’. I do absolutely believe that Blackpool has that potential. Given where Blackpool was at in 2018, it has definitely come a long way. I am ambitious for it.”