West Berkshire Council

Children and Family Services Improvement Blog

News and updates about the work we're doing to improve our services for children

You can find more information about our services on our Caring for Children and Families pages.

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A Proud Moment

Written on: 17-1-2017

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There were two e-mails in my inbox last week that particularly cheered me up. One was from Ofsted with a draft version of our monitoring visit letter for a factual accuracy check before publication. The other was forwarding me a link to the Times Educational Supplement.

You might suspect that the monitoring visit letter was the source of my "proud moment", but no. Although it was immensely cheering to read a letter that was largely very positive about our progress and our practice, and to have it confirmed that my 15 December blogpost (see previous post) didn't contain any glaring inaccuracies about the visit, it was the other e-mail that really had me glowing with pride.

The e-mail that linked to the Times Educational Supplement was at the end of a long chain which started when one of West Berkshire's care leavers, S, got in touch with a social worker in the Leaving Care Team to ask for some advice; not advice for herself but for a student at the educational establishment where she now has an apprenticeship. It was great to see the strong, positive connection between this young person and their social worker, and the social worker's immediate response, which was to identify colleagues who might be able to help and to get them involved. As S's query was an educational one, the Virtual Head Teacher was drawn into providing some answers. Because the Virtual Head is someone who also had a long established connection with S, the response wasn't just some dry facts, but also a cheery enquiry about how things were going with the apprenticeship, and lo and behold an e-mail pinged back with a link to her published article in the TES about her field of expertise.

It's a great achievement to have an article featured in such a respected publication, so naturally the Virtual School Head forwarded the link to me. And because I have also met S and know her a little, I was able to make contact with her to let her know I'd read the piece and thought it was terrific; very articulate and thought-provoking.

I was struck by how this is "corporate parenting" at its best; a family-like network brought together in support of S, interested in her progress, supporting her in her own growing professional network and united in pride at her achievements.

In my last two blogposts, I've written about qualitative and quantitative ways of measuring whether we are getting things right for children, but ultimately, there's no substitute for knowing individual children and young people and being aware of their experiences as they go through life. Are we getting it right for S? Yes, I think we are.

You can read more about working for us as a social worker, or follow Rachael on Twitter for updates on how we're doing.

Quality, not just Quantity

Written on: 9-1-2017

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Happy New Year! Welcome back readers. I hope those of you who had a break had a good one.

I'm conscious that my last update before Christmas was about the latest DataZone. This provides us with important quantitative data about our performance, but it is far from the whole picture. Another important aspect of knowing ourselves is the qualitative information we obtain through audit. Our main audit cycle runs six times a year in two month blocks. The final cycle in 2016 ended at the end of December. By Tuesday 3 January, I had the outputs of that round of audit in my inbox. An impressive feat from our Research and Information Manager!

As part of our constant push for improved quality, we have further "raised the bar" in this most recent round of audits and reduced the opportunity for subjectivity in the application of the audit framework. This has led to an increase in the proportion of cases we consider "inadequate" in full audits (the most thorough and detailed) and which require immediate action to meet our expected minimum standards. This makes for disappointing data, perhaps, but it's essential to make sure that we are continually fine-tuning our judgements and not allowing ourselves to be lulled by pretty trajectories. Any trends and patterns of weaknesses identified (rather than individual errors or omissions) in these audits will be considered by the QA Board so that whole service remedial action can be put in place, if necessary.

On a more positive note, we are also seeing a steady increase in audits for which we rate the social worker's practice as "good" or even, from time to time, "outstanding". When we are finding this, despite the higher bar, it's a good sign that our practice improvements are well embedded.

We have also introduced moderation audits, where a second auditor audits the same casework, so that we can be confident that the audit judgements that are made - whether they identify good practice or point to further improvement needed - are consistent across the service. In this round the moderation didn't find any anomalies in the audit judgements, which again points to a good embedding of our expectations of practice quality.

Another change that we have made is to expect that audits will be conducted by the auditor side by side with the social worker whose work is being audited. Our current management information system doesn't always make it easy to find all relevant records, so working in this way ensures that nothing held on the system is accidentally overlooked. It also gives the social worker a chance to provide context, respond to queries, and to bring their work to life. It's a way of case auditing that social workers tell us they like; probably because it increases the amount of support to balance the challenge.

The amount of audit activity has increased overall, which is another positive. Auditing is time and labour-intensive. Maintaining an audit programme which is challenging, comprehensive and regular enough to really impact positively on practice is hard when we're keeping so many other plates spinning as well. We had a dip in the number of completed audits this time last year which it took a couple of cycles to correct, so I am pleased to see that this has improved, but we'll need to keep an eye on it.

Three hours after the November and December audit report dropped into my inbox, the January and February audit allocations also landed there. 40+ full audits and 200+ child in need cases available for "dip" auditing across the service.

The break is over!

You can read more about working for us as a social worker, or follow Rachael on Twitter for updates on how we're doing.

'Twas the week before Christmas...

Written on: 21-12-2016

And all through the District
Everyone was waiting for the DataZone.

All right, that's not quite as appealing as the twinkle-eyed visitor, with his bowlful-of-jelly laugh, but it's the reality of the third week of the month. Any month. Even with the festive season upon us.

The DataZone was circulated in draft last week, which gives Team Managers a chance to check their expected data against what the system is reporting and enables anyone who has been slow to get notes onto the system a brief window in making sure all records are up to date for the preceding month. The final DataZone came out on Monday morning and as soon as I was out of meetings, I was reviewing it together with the Head of Service.

What's good to see is the consistency in the majority of areas reported on. For issues where we're still trying to improve - percentage of agency staff, for example - we are still getting better (down to 15% this month), and for those issues where we've achieved good levels of performance, we are holding steady. This includes completed supervisions (98%), assessments completed within 45 days (100%), ICPCs held on time (96%), child protection reviews and visits held on time (99% and 94% respectively), looked after children reviews and visits on time (100% and 97% respectively), core groups on time (97%) completed health assessments (98%) and dental checks (96%) for our looked after children.

There are some areas where performance remains a little more volatile, for example, getting reports to families on time. Here the year to date position is slowly improving for both initial and review child protection conferences (78% and 76% respectively), but the monthly position is more up and down. What the Head of Service was able to report in relation to these figures is that there's a much better grip on those occasions when reports don't go to families in a timely way, and the reason why. In other words, we're not a service that is "surprised" by our own data, but rather, we have already identified any areas where problems arise and the data reflects what we already know.

Because we're a smallish local authority, there are some aspects of our performance where the small cohorts we're working with can mean significant swings for better or for worse. One very timely adoption completed recently, for example, has brought our average adoption timescales down dramatically. By contrast, lengthy and complex court proceedings completed for three sibling groups in May, July and September mean that we've got no chance of getting our "time taken in proceedings" average down to the national target of 26 weeks until many more months have passed and a large number of more speedily completed proceedings have concluded. Although we are aware at all times of the problem of drift and delay, we also have to make sure that all our work does justice to the needs of individual children and their families, so "time taken in proceedings" isn't a target that we can chase by working faster than is safe or appropriate. We must take the time the work needs to be completed well. These are times when the data just is what it is, and the story behind the data is all important.

After years (it really is years!) of chasing to ensure all our looked after children have an up to date SDQ, I am pleased that we have finally secured 100% of these. As well as knowing the average SDQ score, we now have information about how many of our looked after children have scores in which range. So last week we also reviewed the "pathway" for young people whose SDQ scores (for problems with emotional wellbeing) are in the higher range and give us cause for concern, so that we can be confident that for those young people, appropriate support is in place.

As I tie up the loose ends before the Christmas break, I am really pleased to see our grip on our own performance so much stronger than it was a year ago, let alone two years ago. The Christmas break will test us, but I am optimistic that January's DataZone, when it comes, will be as healthy as this one.

In the meantime, spare a thought for the child and family social workers, and their colleagues across the council and in our partner organisations who will be helping to keep children safe in West Berkshire this Christmas.  I take my hat off to them as I put down the keyboard for a couple of weeks. There will be no blog update until the New Year.

Thank you for reading, and for joining us on our Improvement Journey. Have a great, safe, child-centred Christmas.

You can read more about working for us as a social worker, or follow Rachael on Twitter for updates on how we're doing.

And they're gone.

Written on: 15-12-2016

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They came. They saw. They went away again. There will be an Ofsted Monitoring Visit letter published in the New Year.
I should be a bit careful what I write about the inspectors' findings, because I don't want to put words in the inspectors' mouths that I end up having to eat later! But I can say that I'm pleased about how the visit went.

Servicing an inspection is an extraordinary endeavour. I imagine it being a bit like taking a rock band on the road, (only slightly easier on the ears). Servicing a two-day monitoring visit is not such a big palaver, but we underestimate the demands on our teams and our time at our peril. The "day job" doesn't give way to the preparation, so the week and weekend ahead of the visit are full of additional hours' work, and while the visit itself takes place, every one stays late or gets in early to make sure any loose ends are tied up.

I dropped a little note of good wishes to the six social workers whose cases were being tracked, and the response I got from one of them underlines what makes all this extra effort "doable":

"In a bizarre way I am looking forward to Ofsted seeing just how far we have come on our journey. I don't think I am alone in thinking that [the team] is a good, strong team with everyone focused on positive outcomes for children and families."
With that kind of positive attitude in the team, we made light work of what might otherwise have been heavy going. The inspectors help, of course, by being as pleasant as they are skilled. Nevertheless, the feeling of pressure across the service is palpable.

Happily the inspectors were able to see real evidence of increasing stability in the service, better management grip and improving quality of practice. They confirmed that our focus on recruitment and retention was generating a positive impact, visible in the data, and also evident in the discussions they had with social workers.

The inspectors could see - and we know full well - that our current IT system gets in the way of some of the areas we are improving. But they also know that we are engaged in our system replacement programme, so this will get better.
They found some areas of inconsistency in our practice and in the impact of our supervision, which we will need to work on, and they asked some good questions about timescales in our MASH and how we manage "step down" when a case doesn't need a social work response. They had no immediate concerns about any West Berkshire child being at risk. I wouldn't have expected them to, but it's always good to have this confirmed.

"Good" is a fairly ordinary word in common use, but it's especially loaded with meaning when an Ofsted inspector uses it, so I was very pleased to hear "good" applied several times to describe quality of assessments, analysis and planning, evidence of children's needs being understood and buy-in from partners.
No one gets to rest on their laurels here. It is clear to us that there is more work to do to achieve consistency of the better quality practice that we have now demonstrated is well within our grasp. That's the task, from the moment the inspectors left, and particularly as we go into 2017 - two years on from our inspection judgement.

But on the day that the inspectors left us, the most important thing was to recognise the enormous progress achieved to date across the service. The Head of Service and I took a walk round the teams to thank them for their hard work and share with them the headlines from the feedback. Everyone was so pleased and relieved. In one or two places there were some tears shed. We know, and reflect back to our teams how far they've come, but the "inadequate" label hangs like a millstone round our necks sometimes, and the pat on the back doesn't feel real until it comes from the inspectors.

Bring on the inspection, I say.

You can read more about working for us as a social worker, or follow Rachael on Twitter for updates on how we're doing.

They're here!

Written on: 5-12-2016

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By the time this is posted on the blog, I'll have had my first meeting with the two Ofsted HMI who are with us on 5 and 6 December for a monitoring visit.

Servicing a monitoring visit is a challenge. Files uploaded to the "Huddle" (a shared storage area) include case listings from which the inspectors select the cases they want to track; social worker consistency summary charts; LSCB and QA Board documents; minutes of the CSE Steering Group and the MASH Board; structure charts and staffing details; audit outputs and the DataZone; and the key documents and audits relating to the six cases selected for tracking.

As always, the preparation for something like this produces plenty of examples of good work, and also challenges us to reflect on areas where we think we could do better. In addition to anything that's been put on the "Huddle", the teams have been reflecting on their own strengths and areas for development and reviewing what other feedback they have received. At last week's QA Board, for example, the Contact Advice and Assessment Service shared with me a collation of all the thanks and praise they had received since their restructure in 2014. A mere couple of compliments in that year, swells to half a dozen in the following year, 2015, but is nearer two dozen for this year; a graphic example of how things have changed for the better.

The two inspectors won't have time to see all of this, of course. They are expecting to spend their time (broadly) in line with this timetable:

Monday 5 December

9 to 9:30am - Meeting DCS and members of SLT

9:30 to 10am - Meeting re timetable 

10am to 1pm - CAAS/MASH           

1 to 2pm - Lunch

2 to 3:30pm - Case tracking

3:45 to 5:15pm - Case tracking        

5:30pm - Catch up with DCS

9 to 9:30am - Meeting DCS and members of SLT

9:45am to 1pm - Meeting with manager, case sampling decision making, thresholds, management oversight

1 to 2pm - Lunch

2 to 3:30pm - Case tracking

5:30pm - Catch up with DCS

Tuesday 6 December

8:30am - Catch up with Mandi re day's arrangements                           

9am to 1:30pm - Case tracking

2:45 to 4pm - Collating findings       

4 to 5pm - Feedback

8:30am - Catch up re day's arrangements

9am to 1:30pm - Case tracking

2:45 to 4pm - Collating findings

4 to 5pm - Feedback


But the discipline of checking, reflecting, tweaking further has simply become part of what we do. Meanwhile, six social workers will come under closer scrutiny as part of the case tracking. This can be nerve wracking and feel very exposing, but it is also a chance for social workers to talk in detail about the children and young people they know well, and who they are so committed to helping. Often social workers tell me that they enjoy these discussion because of the focus on the children.

So - by Tuesday afternoon we will have had initial feedback on these findings, and then early in the New Year there will be a published report.

The phone has just gone to say the inspectors have arrived. Wish us luck!


You can read more about working for us as a social worker, or follow Rachael on Twitter for updates on how we're doing.