In the 12 months since Stacie, a service manager in Herefordshire Council’s child in need team, returned from maternity leave, she has witnessed transformations in the way the council is improving children’s services.
There is greater emphasis on workforce training, increased attention to practice, and a commitment to listen and promote dialogue – not just with the workforce – but with families and children too, she says.
“We are seeing teams becoming more settled within the corporate parenting service and some strong and capable and experienced social workers are staying with us for a longer period of time. Communication from management about the improvements that are taking place is so much better and that makes a big difference because we very much feel involved in the change that is happening.”
Stacie’s return coincided with the permanent appointment of corporate director for children and young people Darryl Freeman, who has been leading these changes.
“It has been a difficult and traumatic time for the workforce, the council and the wider families,” says Darryl, “particularly over the last two years with the high court judgement, the BBC’s Panorama documentary, the inadequate Ofsted rating, and coming through lockdown.”
The BBC’s Panorama documentary was broadcast on 16 May 2022, and focused on a series of court judgments that severely criticised practice and management at Herefordshire. The programme also highlighted cases of families who felt failed by the authority when it took their children into care.
Two months later, in July 2022, the council received an inadequate Ofsted rating. Areas identified for improvement included creating structures and service pathways, and regular and effective supervision, and improving the quality of practice.
“It would be easy, particularly following an Ofsted inspection like this, and an awful lot of pressure coming from a variety of quarters, to bury our heads in the sand,” says Darryl. “But for me, what is important is to say sorry when we get something wrong and try and put it right.”
Never stop listening
Reconciliation between agency partners, families and the workforce has been key to the council’s improvement journey, as well as being able to step back and listen to the experiences and concerns of families and social workers.
“I am learning from the people I’m working with, and one thing I’ve learnt from recent experience is to never stop listening and to never stop having those conversations – that way, I remain connected to their experiences,” says Darryl.
Herefordshire’s draft improvement plan is testament to that. It has been prepared with input from the workforce, children, young people, parents and carers, and multi-agency and cross-sector partners, and responds to nine improvement areas identified in the authority’s Ofsted inspection report.
One area of change is how the council relates to families.
“Families felt ‘done to’ rather than feeling like they were part of the conversation about transforming their lives,” says Darryl. “I want children’s services to be a place that promotes dialogue between families, professionals and practitioners to show that as tough as these conversations are, we want to listen to the experiences of families to try and move things forward and engage with them on future changes with our practice.”
This is already happening, says Nataleigh, a social worker in the children with disability team. “There is more onus on bringing families to the forefront of children in need (CIN) meetings and family group conferences, and encouraging them to lead these meetings,” she says.
Building relationships and trust
Keen to maximise on these positives, Darryl has given the green light to start training practitioners in restorative and relational approaches – practice frameworks that focus on building relationships and trust. Darryl anticipates that the training plan will be in place by the spring.
Stacie, who has experience using these practice frameworks, sees the training as a positive step. “By building good relationships, it helps parents to build trust in you and work together to help them make the changes they need for their children,” she says.
Elsewhere, Stacie says structures that didn’t encourage good social care practice to flourish are changing.
Herefordshire’s management structure was lean, she says, which left little room for social workers to dedicate ample time to their cases or capitalise on training.
Investment in recruiting managing practitioners, to play a supervisory role and support team managers, has made a significant difference.
Darryl says: “It has meant increased capacity, particularly in teams such as MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) and assessment, where there is most transition and activity, and practitioners are doing a lot of things that need authorising. The change has improved the flow and quality of work, and timeliness for families.”
As a result, the council is seeing CIN, child protection cases and the rate of referrals slowly come down. Darryl has also been able to reduce caseloads from an average of 40 to under 18. “Our ambition is to reduce that further,” he says.
“We’ve kept teams small and manageable because we want to make sure that frontline managers had a good span of control and could build relationships with their teams.
“We are also trying to reduce the number of handoffs, so families and children are not going from one practitioner to another. Our aim is to reach a stage where practitioners can work with the child through a range of interventions or levels of need, and we can put the support in place so that the social worker stays involved with the child and can build the relationship.”
Attractive learning destination
With fewer cases, social workers like Nataleigh, are also finding the space to take up training opportunities within Herefordshire’s Social Work Academy.
Nataleigh has taken up practice educator professional standards (PEPS) training through the University of Worcester to increase her professional development. She believes the range and breadth in courses, including research in practice and leadership, has made Herefordshire a more attractive learning destination.
While Herefordshire is positive about the gains that have been made so far, the council is conscious that there is still some way to go. One of Darryl’s s goals is recruit, retain and increase the level of support for foster carers over the next two to three years.
“We are working with our HR department to introduce foster friendly policies that mirror what is available for people that adopt children and the leave that is available to parents. Also, we want to create a local charter so that the council becomes a foster friendly employer and encourage other employers to do so.”
Working towards a solution
Having a workforce that appears energised to take on these challenges helps.
Social workers are actively encouraged to air their views in practitioner and manager forums, director clinics, in the council’s staff reference group but also one on one. “Instead of us hearing comments like: ‘I’m unhappy and this is what I want’, they are saying: ‘I think I’ve got a solution here’ – and that is leading to more proactive solution-focused conversations, which I’m really excited about,” says Darryl.
Stacie feels positive too. “Because senior leadership has recognised the challenges that were making it difficult to be a social worker here and are planning to change them, I feel quite hopeful,” she says. “I want social workers to come back because they will see a different place to the one they left.”
Darryl echoes these sentiments. “We are seeing people embrace the challenge of working somewhere where there is a plan, and enthusiasm for really taking the service in a different direction. And I am clear that with our drive and ambition, it is achievable that this local authority will be good before too long.”
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