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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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.

The Letter

Written on: 30-1-2017

Caring for Children and Families blog - graphic of an envelope with legs and a smiley face

I've saved myself some blogging time this week, by relying on Ofsted to do my work for me! Instead of a blog post, here is the link to the letter following our Monitoring Visit in December. The letter was published on the morning of 30 January 2017.

I hope you will agree that the letter reflects good progress, and is in keeping with the many successes I have shared in these posts over the past 18 months or so. It also rightly points to some areas where we still need to strive further for consistently good practice. Rest assured that we are doing so.

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

A Proud Moment

Written on: 17-1-2017

Children and Services Improvement Blog - White email envelope on a laptop

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

STOCK IMAGE - Three People Around a Computer

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.