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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Watch what space?

Written on: 27-3-2017

Children and family services improvement blog - graphic of man hanging on tree branch off cliff

A few weeks ago in the 27 February blogpost, I was writing about making space for new ideas and ended on a cliff-hanger: Watch this space!

Regular readers will be forgiven, one month on, for wondering what on earth they were supposed to be watching for? The two blogposts that followed were fairly low-key commentaries - one on a discussion with Ofsted about whether we are ready for re-inspection and the other, one of my regular detailed digs into the data.

But I had promised that transitioning our improvement work into "business as usual" would give us space to take on something new. What I knew as I wrote that blog was that West Berkshire had been a successful partner in Hertfordshire County Council's Innovation Fund bid to expand its Family Safeguarding model. However, it turned out that we had to wait a few more weeks, biting our tongues, until the news was officially announced.

We are so pleased to be joining our Berkshire neighbour, Bracknell Forest and colleagues further afield in Luton and Peterborough as part of this Hertfordshire expansion. To be seen as a credible partner for this roll out helps us to see how far we have come with our service improvement.

The Family Safeguarding model is exciting for us because it affords us an opportunity to bring additional, specialist professional capacity into our safeguarding teams to tackle the seemingly intractable child protection challenges of domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental illness. The focus on families, and on working with them to tackle the root causes of harm, rather than "doing to" them, fits with our existing core values as a service. We are already seeing rates of children on a child protection plan and looked after children coming down in response to our improved practice. This work should enable us to safely take this progress even further, leading to better outcomes all round, and in particular for children whose families' multiple challenges sometimes make them the hardest to help.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are as nerdy about the data as I am, there was another kind of cliffhanger last week. Although I'd bottomed out some reporting errors in the information about child protection visits, I had an outstanding question about dental checks. The follow up on this came through promptly as well. One young person's check had had the date of the check incorrectly recorded, so of course, it didn't appear in the report. But the other few "missing" checks had either been completed but not added to the system, or had been scheduled to take place in March, so they wouldn't have (and shouldn't have) been reported as a February check. The figures that will be reported in April will therefore bring us back up to expected performance. But it seemed to me that there was a little bit of slippage here in making sure both dental checks and system updates take place in a timely way, so it had done no harm to pursue this enquiry into the data right into the detailed records of individual children.

In the end, that's what it comes down to: every child matters.

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

When the numbers don't add up

Written on: 20-3-2017

STOCK IMAGE - Confused Looking Man Scratching Head

Last week we received the Data Zone in the usual way, and I nearly fell off my chair. One of the performance measures on which we have been consistently performing well for some time - visits to children on a child protection plan - had suddenly dipped under 90%. This was in the context of an increase in general statutory activity, particularly looked after children and children on a plan, so perhaps a dip in performance was to be expected, but I have become used to us being more resilient than that.

This isn't like us. What could possibly be the cause of our social workers not getting out to these important visits?

I received the report on Wednesday afternoon and by Thursday afternoon I'd sent my various performance challenges back to the Head of the Children and Family Service, including a very stark comment on this particular measure: "below 90% - not OK. Hasn't been under 90% since last July."

If I was troubled by this data, I knew my colleagues would be too, so I wasn't surprised to find a reply in my inbox first thing on Monday morning. Rather than an explanation for the apparent low performance, however, it was a revised Data Zone. In the updated version, a reporting error had been corrected, and the figure for visits to children on a child protection plan now stood at 96% - much more in keeping with our performance over the past few months.

Although data isn't the be all and end all of performance improvement, it has a vital role to play in prompting us to ask important questions about whether we are prioritising the right things and getting them done in a timely, accurate way. This is only possible if we are unflinching in our approach to the messages it gives us; what matters is not "is this a number I like the look of?" but, "does this data give a true account of our performance". So, when I received a Data Zone report with an improved number, was I satisfied? Not really.

The term "reporting error" is a usefully bland catch-all and can cover a multitude of sins, from genuine problems arising from the way a report is run, to a performance team being pressured to re-run a report after lots of late data entry. A genuine problem should be corrected. Late data entry deserves a further challenge back to the social work teams.

I went straight back to the performance team to discover the cause of the "reporting error". On this occasion it turns out to have been a genuine problem caused by the wrong end date being run in the report. Now that I have received this assurance, I am happy for the revised report to stand. Not only is the reported figure "better", but I am confident that it is an accurate reflection of our actual visits to children.

This wasn't the only area of performance where I raised a challenge. Looked after children's dental checks also looks lower than I expected. The service is following this up as well. Here too there is a difference between what the service says has been achieved and what the performance report shows, but we have not yet been able to discover why. In this situation, neither I nor the Head of Service will let the service's claim override the data in the report. We need to bottom out the issue and understand where the difference comes from.

This unflinching look at the data, and the willingness to accept - and uncover the reasons for - a performance figure we don't like the look of, is at the heart of using data to drive improved performance. I expect an answer in my inbox in the next few hours.

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

Be careful what you wish for...

Written on: 13-3-2017

Children's Service Improvement Blog - MOMO logo

As we continue to progress our service improvement and to develop our ambitions and plans for the future, we keep one eye on what Ofsted are up to. This seems reasonable, as they are certainly keeping an eye on us! We know that they have to complete inspections of all local authorities across the country under the current inspection framework (known as the "SIF") but we are keen to encourage them back to re-inspect us because this will give us the opportunity to prove that we deserve to have our "inadequate" label removed.

With effect from June 2016, there has been a clear regime of Ofsted monitoring visits in place for those local authorities judged to be "inadequate", but our inspection and judgement predated this programme, so we have been in a curious limbo, having had a series of audit visits in late 2015 / early 2016 and a single monitoring visit in the new style in December 2016 but no sign of us being lined up for a follow up inspection.

Last week a Senior Ofsted HMI (inspector) came to visit us again. On this occasion Heads of Service and Service Managers joined us to discuss where we think we are on our "improvement journey". I outlined our progress against our initial improvement plan and our "getting to good" work (which I described inthe last blogpost); we shared our latest DataZone performance information and then the HMI had the opportunity to dig behind the data in discussion with the assembled managers. By the end of the discussion there was good news for us. The HMI agreed that we were ready for re-inspection, and that she would recommend that as the way forward, but warned us sternly: "Be careful what you wish for!"

We have since had that proposal confirmed. The next time Ofsted pay us a visit, it will be to re-inspect. Of course, because inspections are unannounced, we don't know when exactly that will be, but we are taking steps to make sure that we are prepared for any eventuality.

Although the spectre of Ofsted looms large, it is equally important for us to remember that the improvements we are making should always be more focused on their impact on children and families than on satisfying an inspector. This means that as well as bracing ourselves for inspection we are working on our "What next?" plans.

One of the changes we are making is the introduction of an app called MOMO - which stands for "mind of my own" - to make it easier to gather young people's views and to enable them to prepare for reviews and meetings as well as sharing worries or good news. 

This is already in use in a number of other local authorities across the country, and we are excited by its possibilities here in West Berkshire.

With every week that passes, we are able to see a new development or further improvement, so perhaps we should be careful not to wish Ofsted back too soon if we think that we can make even more progress, but on balance, I think even if the call came this week, we would have plenty to show and to tell.

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

Making space for fresh ideas

Written on: 27-2-2017

Children's Services Improvement blog - lightbulb moment

Back in November 2016, I wrote about our Children's Services Improvement Programme. In the early stages after our "inadequate" judgement, an internal board met monthly to drive our service improvement. At the end of the first year, we closed that remedial phase of the programme and opened a new phase - "Getting to Good" - to lift us to the next level. Now, as we approach the second anniversary of our inspection, it is time to reflect on this phase of our improvement and whether that is now ready to be wound down and transferred to "business as usual".

The Board - which comprises the Chief Executive, the Lead Member, myself (DCS), the AD for the Children and Family Service, the Finance Business Manager and a Programme Manager - met last week with a strong Programme Highlight Report in front of us showing good progress in most of the projects, and a closure report for one of the projects in the programme.

The Closure Report was for Project 5 - Recruitment and Retention. The fruits of this work have been felt throughout the service, and much appreciated by children and their families. Our agency rate at the time of the last DataZone is now down to 14%. We have recently received favourable coverage for the person-centred focus of this work in Community Care magazine.

We have now permanently appointed to a role in the service for a specialist HR officer to lead the service's recruitment and retention; this is embedded within the service rather than an element of corporate HR. The professional development elements of this work are led by our principal social worker. We need to bear down still further on our agency use, but this does feel like it can be "business as usual" now. The Board agreed that particular project could be closed down.

Projects 1, 3 and 4 are all now very close to completion, and Project 2 has the concluded the majority of its service re-designs, with the one outstanding piece of work being the staff consultation on the proposed Targeted Intervention Service.

The Highlight Report proposed:

"It is proposed that the Projects Board work towards completing all projects as far as is possible to enable the final phase - Phase 4 of the programme to close at the end of March as originally anticipated. This will mean that certain carry over activities will be necessary but their progress will be monitored through Children and Family Leadership Team (CFLT) rather than keep the full CSIP governance structure in place.

It is proposed that Project 2 will continue as a project until completion under the governance of CFLT."

The Board agreed with this approach, and the Closure Reports for the remaining projects will come for consideration and agreement next month.

Will this leave us without a programme of improvement work at all? I don't think so.

My analogy for service improvement, repeated often in this blog, has been "running up a down escalator". Unless we are driving ourselves forwards at quite some pace, we find ourselves drifting backwards all too quickly. This can't be allowed to happen.

We spent some time therefore discussing "what next?" We have some grand plans for further development of the service, which we are optimistic that we will be able to take forward. Winding down the programme and transitioning this phase of our improvement into "business as usual" gives us room o be able to take on something new.

Watch this space!

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

Phew! What a couple of weeks!

Written on: 13-2-2017

Much of the work of service improvement is straightforward, persistent slog. Taking two steps forward; trying to avoid taking one step back. Sometimes, however, we need to find an extra gear just to keep on top of things. The last couple of weeks has been like that. On top of our "business as usual" we have squeezed in a DfE Review, the communication around publication of our Monitoring Visit Letter, a visit from staff at the Innovations Unit to hear about our Building Community Together work, a Local Safeguarding Children's Board meeting and the LSCB's publication of a Serious Case Review.STOCK IMAGE - Tired man with glasses
STOCK IMAGE - Tired man with glasses

For the DfE Review, which was led by our DfE-commissioned Improvement Advisers, we considered progress since the last formal review in March 2016 when we had just completed the work in our Improvement Plan arising from the previous year's Ofsted inspection. Since then we have been working on our "Getting to Good" plan. This plan has focused on "benefits realisation" of our original Improvement Plan (in other words, demonstrating that we have thoroughly tackled areas of weak practice and embedded our changes into "business as usual"); structural changes in the children and family service (particularly to put in place a MASH and to improve our work with looked after children and care leavers); communication, engagement and participation (increasing "children's voice" in our work); transition to adulthood for vulnerable children receiving services; and updates to our recruitment and retention plans.

We were able to outline the actions we have taken, the evidence we are seeing of our improvement (including from our DataZone) and to relate individual children's stories that conveyed the outcomes and impact of these changes.

The DfE Improvement Advisers also wanted to talk over our Ofsted Monitoring Letter and our response to it. Although it wasn't published until 30 January, we had had it for several days by the time of the DfE Review and long enough to conclude that our response really needs to be "keep on keeping on". Ofsted's careful language of "not all" interventions reducing risk quickly enough, or "not all" supervisions driving case planning rigorously, suggests - positively - that most of our interventions and supervisions show good practice, and our task is to drive consistency relentlessly. Our Improvement Advisers seemed satisfied that this was the right approach and that the letter did not call for radical new plans.

The publication of the Monitoring Visit Letter caused a flurry of press attention. It's disappointing that some of the coverage persisted in describing our areas of further work as "failings" rather than "room for further improvement", which would have been a fairer assessment, but we didn't really have time to dwell on this as there was so much more to work on.

On the same day the Monitoring Visit Letter was published, we hosted a visit for some staff from the DfE's Innovations Unit at which we showcased the work of our Building Community Together programme. I outlined my vision for a Communities Directorate taking the notion of "community" seriously, and centring its work - whether with adults or with children and families - on restorative practice. Then colleagues and partners from across the district presented their successes at working in this way. This included the Emotional Health Academy and Emotional Health Triage services, health colleagues from the Community Health Trust, CCG and GP practices, neighbourhood police, primary and secondary schools leaders and pupils from one of our secondary schools, and the Chief Executive outlining how this way of working is being taken up by the council more broadly. This may seem a distraction from the business of service improvement, but we have been at pains to demonstrate that not only is it possible to improve and to innovate at the same time, but also that having all partners focused on achieving shared objectives through shared practice helps to drive that improvement quickly and consistently and helps to make it sustainable as it becomes "the way we do things around here".

Our visitors seemed struck by both our capacity to achieve significant change, and our ambition to reach for more.

The next day we were again reaching for more, this time in our LSCB meeting, where we looked into audit findings for cases where children have gone onto a child protection plan for a second time, and findings from an audit into the application of the THRIVE methodology. We received the quarterly report from our Emotional Health Academy, which continues to strengthen and grow and which attracts strong demand. We also saw some excellent work by our young people who had taken the LSCB's (rather dry) annual report and converted it into eye-catching posters about CSE and Domestic Abuse, with the help of our print-room.

Children's Services Improvement blog - CSE snip
Children's Services Improvement blog - CSE snip

This rush of business concluded with the publication of a Serious Case Review by our LSCB. This review, which has been an extensive piece of work, undertaken alongside the Board's drive for improvement, was commissioned to look into how organisations handled allegations of sexual offences against children, which were committed by people in positions of trust. It followed the sentencing of two men in early 2016 for separately committing sexual offences against children. The Review showed that a range of agencies had missed opportunities to protect young people from harm, and the LSCB now needs to ensure that the recommendations made in the review are followed up by all parties.

What a lot to pack into a few days! However, this is the reality of busy services, working hard to improve, to innovate, to stay on top of the basics, to be publicly accountable, to support and to challenge. I'm pleased and proud that when an extra gear was needed, we were able to find it.

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