Social work with children and families in Manchester is on the up. In May, Ofsted rated the city council’s children’s services as ‘good’ after finding significant improvements since the last inspection in 2017 across many areas of practice.
Two months later, the authority won the council of the year prize at the prestigious LGC Awards, with judges finding it had “transformed services with outcomes that buck the national trend” and praising how it took lived experience into account in designing services.
In their report, Ofsted inspectors said social workers were “positive about working in Manchester” and valued the support they received from managers. Those who had been with the authority since the 2017 inspection – when it was rated requires improvement – confidently told inspectors that they could see that the changes in practice and culture since then were improving children’s lives.
One key change highlighted by Ofsted has been a reduction in caseloads – which are now down to 15-18 on average among case-holding practitioners.
This has been enabled by increasing the number of locality teams across the city and reducing their size, from eight to six practitioners – generally comprising two advanced practitioners, two social workers and two newly qualified staff.
Naomi, who worked in locality teams after qualifying in 2017, until a recent promotion, has seen the difference this has made.
‘Lower caseloads are a godsend’
“Managers now have more time for social workers and have more headspace for the families the team are working with,” she says.
“Our caseloads have reduced significantly in the last couple of years. That’s a godsend as it gives you so much more time to work with children – which achieves better outcomes.”
This is not a case of doing less work, but better work, says Naomi, including a more partnership-based approach with families.
“When I first qualified, no one was working any less hard but the work we were doing was the basics. In the past we’d have drafted a working agreement to say, ‘this is what we expect of you’. Now we can ask, ‘what do you expect of yourselves?’.
“If you have time to sit and work with families then everyone benefits. Most families know what needs to change and, if you’re not rushing around, they can tell you.”
The value of a stable workforce
As well as the restructure, the reduction in caseloads reflects a more stable workforce, says Debbie, manager of the social work consultants, whose role involves supporting practice development.
This is evident in Department for Education figures, which show that the full-time equivalent social worker vacancy rate fell 25.8% to 7.5%, and the agency worker rate from 14.7% to 3.1%, from 2017-21.
Debbie also points to the stability of Manchester’s management team, under the leadership of Paul Marshall, director of children’s services since 2016.
“It gives confidence in people when you’ve got a stable management team,” she says. “They’re all really different but all really experienced managers.”
The supportiveness of managers that Ofsted identified is evident throughout the service.
‘Without the support of my manager I wouldn’t have done it’
Advanced practitioner and practice educator Lucy, who works in a locality team, recalls how her manager was critical in giving her the confidence to give evidence in court in a complex case she was handling.
“The children were illegally moved from the country because the family were scared the council would seek care orders,” she says. “In that case, the children were made wards of court. Without the support of my manager I don’t think I would have given evidence.”
She says her manager is “always available for professional advice and personal advice” but, in her absence, she can always rely on the “approachable” locality and service managers.
Debbie says the supportiveness of Manchester’s management team is clear from their investment in both the learning and the wellbeing of social workers.
Ofsted found that leaders had “successfully embedded a learning culture across the workforce”.
This starts from the moment newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) join the council’s assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).
Duty and assessment team social workers Kyle and Nadeen both praise the quality of the ASYE programme, which starts with a four-week summer school of full-time training before NQSWs start working in their teams.
“What they provide is good,” says Nadeen. “They are really good at wanting to get feedback from those who have attended training so it reflects what we want. There’s something here for everyone. I’ve got something out of all the training I’ve been to.”
Besides formal training and supervision, practitioners also benefit from strong peer support within their teams and the work of Debbie and fellow consultants across the city.
Says Kyle: “If we are really struggling with a piece of work, you can go to the consultant and they will give us some really creative and critical supervision around families.”
He says he has found this particularly helpful in relation to domestic abuse.
‘It shows Manchester looks after our staff’
Debbie says Manchester has developed a “strong offer” in relation to wellbeing, by listening to staff and not being afraid to try new things.
“We had massages in April, in May I delivered mindfulness across the offices, we also had therapy dogs in May, there’s yoga in July,” she says. “I’m also setting up some creative writing workshops.”
Manchester is also considering the introduction of Schwartz Rounds, which involve using collaborative discussion groups to enable practitioners to share the emotional aspects of their roles, in order to reduce psychological distress.
“Schwartz Rounds have been evidenced to help psychological distress and making sure that’s a key offer lets people know that Manchester looks after our staff,” Debbie adds.
‘You can progress quickly’
The investment in practitioner support, learning and wellbeing also bears fruit in how quickly you can progress in your career in the city.
Having qualified in 2017 – after having done a year in the authority training through the Frontline programme – Naomi became an advanced practitioner within three years.
She puts this down to two factors – the fast pace of the work and management support.
“In Manchester progression happens quite quickly compared to other authorities. I was able to take that step and was supported to do so by my managers,” she says.
Naomi has, more recently, progressed again to the role of case progression manager in central Manchester. The post has historically been focused on tracking families through the pre-proceedings process, but it has been expanded to look at the quality of social work interventions and the experience of families through the system.
Naomi says the expansion of the role is indicative of the fact that Manchester is not resting on its laurels.
“Manchester is asking questions about what we do and how we can do better,” she says. “Nobody is thinking ‘that’s fine, we’ve got our good now’. We all agree there’s a lot further we can go and the people who will benefit are the children, which is why we do the job.”
Practitioners are also positive about the experience of working in a city as diverse as Manchester, where a third of the population were non-white at the time of the 2011 census, more than twice the national average.
“I’ve worked with a lot of amazing young people, from a diverse range of backgrounds, which in central Manchester you get a lot more of than in other local authorities,” says Naomi. “No two families’ circumstances are the same, so there’s a lot of variety but a lot of cause for optimism. What I’ve found is that families are incredibly resilient and it’s more often than not a privilege to work with them.”
However, it also recognises the need to ensure its workforce – particularly at management and leadership levels – is representative of these communities.
Lucy says she has just completed a leadership programme for women from black, Asian or ethnic minority groups, and that “there is a focus on providing opportunity”.
The package of support and opportunity practitioners receive mean they are keen to stay with Manchester.
Says Naomi: “I like Manchester, I like the challenges it poses, I like the culture that we’ve got – that we’re striving to be better, not just for ourselves, but for our children. I’ve seen those changes and it feels really positive.”
If you are interested in a role at Manchester City Council, see the latest vacancies here.