“Our ability to stabilise and support our workforce was absolutely essential if we were to make any progress after the critical Ofsted report in 2013.”
Fiona Fitzpatrick, head of children’s social work services and child protection, is a straight talking and highly experienced senior manager. Having joined Devon last year after child protection services received an inadequate from Ofsted, she has been passionate about prioritising the needs of social workers, and sees this as the driver towards better outcomes for children and families.
“The first thing we knew we had to tackle was staffing numbers. We made some bold decisions to increase the headcount of social workers and not to be afraid of bringing in agency workers to relieve some of the pressures in the interim. Having the right capacity and the right resources is absolutely essential.”
Acknowledging that there is still a long way to go to raise quality and standards of practice, Fiona speaks of the importance of empowering staff, while equipping them with both the practical and technical resources they need to do their jobs – such as access to high quality training and development opportunities.
As a result, there’s been a noticeable increase in the confidence and morale of social workers across many teams. Initiatives being developed such as the Early Help programme – which places the emphasis on partner agencies and community-based support to increase the availability of effective preventative services – are having an impact on caseloads. Devon is committed to a pioneering approach to tackling child sexual exploitation through its new multi-agency REACH team, providing social workers with better in-house support for some of the most complex and troubling cases.
A great deal has been achieved in Devon over the past few months: the single assessment framework has successfully been implemented; the fostering service continues to grow, and now includes parent and child provision; there has been a determined focus to realign practice with the principles outlined in the Munro reports, to ensure consistent allocation of cases leading to timely outcomes for children and young people. Additional measures have also been put into place to provide effective support to social workers to ensure caseloads are manageable. There is a new clarity and a sense that, as an organisation, Devon is taking its responsibilities to its staff very seriously.
“We’ve raised our game,” says Fiona Fitzpatrick. “We’re very clear with our managers about what we expect from them, and what they can expect from us in return.”
And there is plenty on offer. At all levels, staff are being encouraged to access a range of learning and development opportunities, and the new career development scheme has just been launched which will facilitate career advancement for the highest performing social workers on the frontline.
In fact, Devon currently boasts its widest range of career development opportunities, with the recent creation of new management roles at assistant team manager and team manager level. And recognising that many social workers come to Devon to enjoy a much-needed ‘work-life balance’, Devon is continuing to equip its staff for mobile working, which means less time spent in the car travelling back to the office, and more time spent in communities and locality bases, with the children and families who need them most.
Recent relocator Ashley Arkless explains why she chose to join Devon as an operations manager in September 2013, after an established career in social work in Staffordshire:
“The challenge of being part of a local authority with a genuine desire to turn things around after its recent Ofsted report was appealing.”
“I knew about the beautiful coastline from childhood visits, and the deciding factor in choosing Devon over other coastal areas was the excellent transport links between Devon and the North West, so I can be back visiting family and friends in a matter of hours.”
While acknowledging the obvious challenges she has faced having taken up post after the Ofsted report was published, Ashley is impressed by the support she has received since joining Devon.
“Having taken on a middle management position, I have found the restructure and direction being taken by senior managers has been clear and focused on supporting staff to improve outcomes for children in Devon. The pace of change is rapid, but with a drive on improving standards and effecting change in a positive manner.”
As a relocator, Ashley was able to access a generous financial package to help with the costs of moving, and was surprised to find out that costs towards renting a property whilst finding her way around a new county were also available.
For Ashley, and many other relocators, joining Devon hasn’t necessarily presented an ‘easy option’: Devon has its fair share of problems with both urban and rural poverty and deprivation generating challenging workloads for social workers across the county.
“The best thing about the job is knowing that you’re making a difference; not only to individual children and families but also to the system as a whole,” Ashley says.
“But that’s closely followed by the fact that when you get home after a hard days’ work, you can sit back and enjoy everything Devon has to offer, including its beautiful coastlines.”
For more information about working for Devon County Council, visit www.devonsocialwork.co.uk