Sensitivity to ‘bruised’ staff needed for effective DfE intervention in ‘inadequate’ services, finds study

DfE-commissioned report finds run-up to and aftermath of poor Ofsted judgment often has damaging impact on social worker morale because of management turnover, lack of trust and chaotic working conditions

Group of colleagues learning together
Photo: Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock

Government intervention in children’s services must be sensitive to the ‘bruising’ impact on staff of working in an ‘inadequate’ authority, in order to succeed.

That was among the findings of a Department for Education-commissioned study on the effectiveness of DfE intervention in ‘inadequate’ councils and sector-led improvement in ‘requires improvement’ authorities, published last week.

Between 2019-21, researchers analysed the impact of DfE intervention in 24 authorities after they were rated inadequate by Ofsted, through interviews with leaders, managers, social workers, partners and government-appointed advisers, and an analysis of outcomes.

‘Chaotic and stressful’ working environments

It found that staff described working environments, prior to an ‘inadequate’ inspection, “as chaotic and stressful, with high caseloads, and reliance on agency staff to cover unfilled vacancies”.

This was sometimes accompanied by leadership teams who had masked performance problems or were unreceptive to staff concerns,  and improvement consultants or managers who joined the authority claiming to have the answers but quickly moved on.

Interviewees described the impact of the inspection judgment as “shocking” and “devastating”, both because of the ‘inadequate’ label and a feeling that Ofsted had not acknowledged improvements made, resulting in a further dip in staff morale.

Researchers said: “This finding is important, not only because of the emotional effect on staff, but because it also risked demotivating those responsible for laying the foundations for improvement and therefore slowing down progress.”

Senior management departures

A further challenge was the hiatus between the inspection judgment and DfE intervention, during which time senior managers often left, yet the service had to continue delivering, often with a reduced frontline workforce.

The introduction of interim managers or consultants to replace departing senior managers “rarely proved to be a positive experience”, with staff finding it difficult to trust them or feeling demoralised by the extra scrutiny they were placed under.

While the report found this “period of turbulence was problematic as it risked making the service worse”, it said it also reduced the willingness of some staff to engage with the commissioners or improvement advisers appointed by the DfE to intervene in the service.

The research studied improvement journeys in six services that were handed over to an independent trust, three that were placed under the responsibility of another council and 15 where the council retained control, with support from a commissioner, improvement adviser, fellow authority or private consultancy.

While interviewees identified pros and cons for each model, the report found that most of the factors supporting improvement were universal and were less about what was done but how it was done.

‘Repair work’ needed to help staff

Participants said that “repair work” needed to be done to help staff feel confident that the service could improve, given the damaging impact of the ‘inadequate’ verdict on them, and that it was essential that improvement partners were sensitive to these feelings.

“They needed to be aware of how bruised staff felt about the criticism they had received, how fearful they were about what the intervention would mean, and their loyalty to colleagues and the authority.

“There was a need to prove to staff that the improvement partner had faith in their capacity to provide a good service and were not seeking to impose their authority for the sake of it.”

Relatedly, the report said enabling the service to be in control of their improvement, rather than having it done to them, was important and l “helped to counteract some of the negative psychological consequences of an ‘inadequate’ judgment”.

Success factors

Other factors identified as important in the report were:

  • Additional resources with which to recruit more social workers and fund improvement activities.
  • Stable and competent leadership, which participants said involved being calm, understanding what was going on at all levels of the organisation and accepting that you do not have all the answers. However, they also warned that there was a shortage of such leaders.
  • Having an improvement partner who staff found credible and who had the right skills and experience.
  • Having open and trusting relationships between the partner and the service, and between managers and staff.
  • Clarity of roles in the context of there being multiple people involved with authorities in intervention.
  • Minimising the level of monitoring of the authority.

As of late summer 2021, just four of the 24 of the authorities were still ‘inadequate’, with 14 ‘requires improvement’ and six ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. The report said this could suggest that DfE intervention could bring about improvements, there was no way of knowing what would have happened in its absence.

However, overall, it said DfE intervention and the Partners in Practice sector-led improvement programme had “contributed towards improvements in performance” for authorities rated inadequate or requires improvement during the period studied.

Child protection improvements

It found statistically significant increases in the number of child protection plans (CPPs) closed and the number of CPPs reviewed within required timescales in the authorities studied, particularly in eight authorities that had received over £1m in DfE funding for their improvement. These eight also showed evidence of improvements in Ofsted judgments.

Among the wider group of 33 councils receiving support or intervention, there was statistically significant rise in the percentage of vacant social worker posts, compared with a control group, though researchers said this may be because of the increase in the number of social work posts at the supported authorities.

The report’s recommendations included for the DfE to:

  • Consider developing a system for local authorities at risk of inadequacy to access advice from a commissioner or improvement adviser before their Ofsted inspection, followed by a period, for example, of six months, for them to show whether they can create the
    building blocks for improvement. It said this “could pre-empt unnecessary ‘shaming’ and subsequent destabilisation that risks making the service worse”.
  • Work with Ofsted to explore streamlining monitoring and reporting arrangements and reducing the administrative burden on local authorities in intervention.
  • Consider the potential for extending improvement support for authorities during and following the transition out of intervention.
  • Consider the case for establishing a national network, supported by webinars and
    banks of resources, for sector led improvement.

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One Response to Sensitivity to ‘bruised’ staff needed for effective DfE intervention in ‘inadequate’ services, finds study

  1. Paul January 4, 2023 at 9:18 am #

    I agree that the churn of interim senior managers destabilses work force. They come in, set targets, initiate changes, too fast to soon, then leave.
    I have also noticed many have a poor track record, move from 1 failing authority to another, little or no evidence of effective change.