Stable social work management key to improvements in ‘inadequate’ counseling, says DCS
Credit: Rept0n1x / Wikimedia Commons
At the start of 2019, Blackpool Council had to lose control of its children’s services after a damning Ofsted inspection at the end of 2018 found widespread shortcomings in social work practice.
Its vacancy rate fell from 7.4% in 2018 to 29% in 2019, with a similar increase in the share of temporary workers, due to insufficient rating.
Later improvements led government-appointed commissioner Helen Lincoln to recommend that the North West Authority retain control of its services, in a report that same year.
However, the pandemic has hit the city hard, given its significant levels of deprivation and reliance on the tourism industry.
Nevertheless, subsequent visits by Ofsted revealed that the council was making steady progress in its services to children. His last follow-up visit, in January, focused on the front door and found that Blackpool recognized the risks and responded to them in a timely manner.
Now Victoria Gent, who joined Blackpool as director of children’s services last April, is looking ahead to the council’s next full inspection, due this autumn, during which she expects the authority improves his inadequate rating.
Key to the improvements to date has been increased stability within its management workforce, she says.
While Ofsted found ‘significant’ management turnover and little oversight in 2018, its latest visit found ‘significant’ progress had been made in recruiting a team of permanent managers, with oversight at the door “robust” input.
He praised the board’s investment in training less experienced managers and Gent’s “close monitoring of exit interviews” to inform future retention strategies.
A stable workforce is key
Gent, who joined Blackpool after more than 20 years working in various social work and management roles at Lancashire Council, says she inherited an overreliance on agency managers.
“It wasn’t a total agency management team, but more agency managers than we would like,” she adds.
Over the past six months, the board has reduced its number of agency directors to just two out of about 50 total, which Gent says “has made a huge difference to stability.”
“If you’re trying to put together an improvement plan, working with your management team, you wouldn’t want half of them to leave, and then you’d have to start all over again,” she adds.
Having a permanent management team in place means that frontline social workers are “much more likely to stay and invest with us”, allowing the authority to be “much more informed “many of the improvements it needs to make.
Reduced vacancies and use of agencies
The latest government workforce figures show Blackpool’s agency caseworker rate halved, to 15.2 per cent, from 2019 to 2021, while its vacancy rate fell from 29 per cent to 18, 7%.
However, when it last visited, Ofsted said there were still significant numbers of newly qualified social workers and agency staff across the service, dealing with very complex cases of domestic abuse, poor mental health and chronic neglect.
Gent says his work supervising exit interviews has led to a significant decrease in the number of social workers leaving Blackpool in recent months.
“We know that we can work much more flexibly in terms of personnel. We try to listen to our workers and think about how we can better support and retain them,” she says.
A bigger challenge is recruiting staff, with the council’s inadequate rating exacerbating the already difficult task of attracting social workers to the North West of England, adds Gent.
Boards ‘draw from same pool of workers’
“There are definitely a reduced number of social workers and that, combined with the challenges we have of an improvement plan, makes recruiting social workers really difficult,” she says. “Local authorities often draw from the same pool of workers.”
Blackpool has a partnership with local universities as well as Step Up to Social Work, which Gent says is an important part of the council’s recruitment campaign because “if we bring students to us on final placement, they are very likely to stay and commit”.
The board is also considering implementing a more flexible work approach due to the increased use of remote communication among team members during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We know that in the future we do not intend to work nine to five, Monday to Friday, [where] people have to be in the office every day,” she adds.
“I think it’s about having a proportionate and sensible balance that supports our staff and ensures that we maintain good physical contact with families, but recognizes that we know we have learned from Covid and can work in a different way.”
Early help is essential
Blackpool posted early help strategies and negligence since his inadequate judgment, which Gent said was important in meeting the challenges of the Blackpool community.
“It is an area of great deprivation and Covid has impacted our families. It is therefore absolutely essential to try to obtain this support as early as possible for families. We are very early in this journey. We launched the [early help] strategy in November, so we have a long way to go,” she said.
During its 2018 inspection, Ofsted found that some children were living with chronic neglect for long periods.
from Blackpool neglect strategyreleased the following year, said the advice aimed to ‘ensure that all agencies are able to recognize negligence as early as possible and provide an appropriate and prompt response, and to assess our practice and its effectiveness so that we can ensure its quality and be able to continuously improve”.
Progress since then has been evident but, according to Ofsted reports, stuttering. A follow-up visit in September 2021 found ‘management grip’ had improved in cases of long-term neglect, but some children continued to experience it due to delays in escalation from child protection cases to the pre-trial stage of the public law framework.
“I won’t stop until we make it”
Blackpool no longer has a commissioner assigned to it but remains under the supervision of the Department for Education through an improvement adviser, who will remain in place until the authority is re-inspected.
Gent says she expects the board to come out of its “inadequate” rating at the next inspection, scheduled for the fall, but does not specify what grade she expects the board to get.
“I am convinced that we will come out of the ‘mismatch’. Our ambition is to get to ‘good’ for Blackpool, and the work at Blackpool will not stop until we achieve ‘good’. I absolutely believe Blackpool has that potential. Given where Blackpool was in 2018, it has certainly come a long way. I am ambitious for this.