‘Kindness’ is not a term you associate with an Ofsted children’s services inspection report. But that’s how inspectors described the workplace culture at Northamptonshire Children’s Trust (NCT), in twin reports published this week on services it runs at North and West Northamptonshire councils.
The full inspection, in October, was the first for the trust since it took responsibility for children’s services, then rated inadequate, from the former Northamptonshire County Council two years ago.
That rating is no more, with children’s services in both unitary authorities now ‘requires improvement to be good’.
Social work practice improvements
Inspectors found “improvements to the quality and impact of social work practice” throughout the service, resulting in “much better support” for children in need of help and protection and strengthened early help.
Children in care had “a trusted adult with whom they can share their worries and aspirations” in their social workers, while adopters benefited from the support of “passionate, knowledgeable and skilled” practitioners.
Caseloads for social workers were down, vacancies had “reduced significantly”, while practitioners’ development was “highly valued and supported”, through NCT’s social work academy.
‘A culture of kindness’
Underpinning these changes was the culture inspectors identified at NCT.
“Great care and effort are taken by senior managers to visibly support staff and secure a shared vision for improved services for children and young people,” said the inspection reports. “Social workers are overwhelmingly positive about working…for NCT, which reflects a significant shift in culture to one of high support and kindness.”
NCT chief executive Colin Foster says this judgment fills him with immense pride.
“That was feedback from social workers,” he says. “They feel well supported. There’s a culture of, ‘if you are concerned about something it’s ok to say it, if you want to share great practice then do it’.
“We have an email address for awesome practice, and we share that with others. It’s a culture of finding what’s going well, rather than what’s going wrong.”
Safeguarding social workers Sophie Fisher and Heather Gwinnutt say they both see and experience that kindness in their day-to-day work.
‘Everyone wants everyone to succeed’
Senior social worker Sophie says: “Everyone wants everyone to do well and succeed. That’s what you need.”
“Everybody’s lovely,” adds Heather. “We come to do this job to do the best for children and Northants as a trust is really great at promoting that. It’s not a job to get paid for, it’s a job to support children and families to be the best they can be.”
Echoing Ofsted, both hail Colin and the leadership’s team’s role in fostering this culture.
“There’s a lot of trust in Colin and what he wants for the trust,” says Heather. “We’ve all got hope that things will continue to improve under him.”
“He’s accessible and down to earth,” says Sophie. “I really enjoy his emails about dogs, and [his approach] brings some light relief to a really stressful job.”
Accessible and responsive leadership
For both, a key positive is their ability to raise issues with the leadership team and have these acted upon.
Says Sophie: “Previously, when we were requesting a strategy discussion the form was mammoth and a lot of it could be repetitive. We took that to a meeting [with the leadership team] and adaptations were made so that it was concise and to the point. It’s those little things that make our jobs a little easier.”
Heather adds: “For me I feel confident that if I’ve got a problem, I know I can talk to managers and senior managers and it’s not going to be dismissed, it will be heard. When you’re facing challenges on a day-to-day basis, knowing you will be heard is great. For example, we told Colin we needed new chairs and we’ve got new chairs. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the big difference.”
Heather previously worked for the county council and then left the trust in March 2021, shortly after its creation, before returning in February of this year. The reason, she says, was that the stability she had enjoyed in Northamptonshire was lacking in the authority she had joined.
“I’ve been very lucky in Northamptonshire,” she says. “I’ve had a stable management team. That was the draw for me to return,” she says. “The management is consistent, and you trust their decisions.”
Promoting career development
Sophie, who was recently promoted to a senior role, also cites the positive approach to career development at the trust.
While a number of practitioners were encouraged to go for senior positions last year, she didn’t feel ready at the time, so her then manager supported her to build the skills she needed.
“They linked me during that time to a newly qualified social worker in our team,” she says. “By the time it got to the summer I felt more confident and that I had the skills to do the senior role. The trust is really keen to keep people.”
Heather agrees, adding: “There’s now this mantra that we want you here and we want you to develop and build your career in Northamptonshire. That’s another reason I came back, there is career progression for me.”
She’s also seen improvements in supervision since her return, underpinned by the strengths-based Signs of Safety practice model the trust uses.
“Supervision is every four weeks,” she says. “It’s in the diary. It’s just the norm. There’s a lot more focus on what we’re trying to get out of it, rather than it being just a case discussion.”
This was picked up by Ofsted, which cited the “widespread use of the strengths-based practice model” and “strengths-based quality assurance framework” as areas of improvement.
Making a difference for children and families
And children and families are seeing the difference, Heather adds.
“Generally, families are starting to see we want to focus on their strengths, rather than what we’re worried about,” she says. “That motivates them to make changes.”
As an example, she adds: “I’ve had a family recently where the youngster has very challenging behaviours and he came into care for a period of time. So, we were able to put multi-systemic therapy looking into the strengths in the family, and the relationship between mother and child and the rest of the family. Drawing on those networks, we were able to get the child home and things are going really well. Without that, the likelihood is that he would have remained in care.”
Despite the many positives in Ofsted’s reports, they set out areas for improvement, including in relation to certain aspects of management oversight and how social workers use direct work to ascertain children’s views, and life story work to help children in care understand their histories.
Colin adds: “We’re very clear about what we need to improve, and we’ve got a plan in place.”
He says he is keen to hear from anyone interested in joining the trust or returning to Northamptonshire after a spell away.
“If you would like to know more and have an informal chat, please feel free to DM me on Twitter @colinjfoster or email me email@example.com and I will arrange to give you a call,” he adds.