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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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Drinking tea in the improvement garden

Written on: 24-7-2017

STOCK IMAGE - younger and older woman sat in a garden drinking tea

I last blogged on 19 May, just after the Ofsted inspection team had left us. In the blogosphere silence since then, the Ofsted process unfolded as I outlined in that blogpost:

  • 16 June - we received the draft report for factual accuracy checking
  • 23 June - deadline for our return of the report after factual accuracy checks
  • 5 July - final report to us for information
  • 7 July - publication date

So, on Friday 7 July our report was published.

It makes for great reading. Children's Services in West Berkshire are good.

This outcome is terrific news for West Berkshire's children and families, who can now rely on a service that is appreciably better than it used to be. It is also a testament to the hard work of staff in our children and families, education, and prevention and safeguarding services; the support and encouragement of our councillors and corporate colleagues; the active involvement of our partners; and the help of colleagues across the children's services sector. 

The road to service improvement is paved with dodgy metaphors. I have made much of the fact that this work feels like running up a down escalator a lot of the time. Everyone also talks about "the improvement journey" and this seems to imply that a good service is somehow another place; a different land to where we all started from. But the one thing that will not change, however much we improve our services, is where we are.

At the ADCS Conference in early July, directors of children's services discussed at length and in detail what it would take for our sector to really become a trusted, effective and coherent, sector-led self-improving system. At the heart of this discussion was the idea of improvement as a habit, not a goal.

And this got me thinking, not about an improvement journey, but rather about the "improvement garden". Rather like the backsliding problem of a down-escalator, what we know about gardens is that they can soon be overgrown with unwanted weeds if we don't tend to them regularly. However, unlike an improvement journey, improvement gardening doesn't require us to set out for a distant, potentially unreachable place. What it demands of us is to pay attention to where we are, and to set about making where we are as good as it can possibly be.

An improvement journey is often mapped out for us by others who have taken a similar road before. The route may prove hazardous, and certainly there can be wrong turnings and dead ends, even if we think we're on the right path. The improvement garden is full of existing features, some that we cherish - some that we may want to obliterate! - but all of which can be transformed, patiently, with time and effort, into a place where our services can flourish. The hard landscaping of the improvement garden is structural change; regular weeding is the focus on getting the basics right; a new plant or other feature is the equivalent of the projects and programmes we introduce in a specific part of the service to improve the way it functions. Garden lovers know that it's the habit of tending to the garden daily that can turn a junkyard into a thing of beauty. Keep this up, and before too long, everything in the improvement garden is pretty rosy.

Last week I had the opportunity to open the Development Day for West Berkshire's Education Service by reflecting on what I'd learned from our service improvement. I shared the important idea of improvement being a habit rather than a goal and that as a result of all I'd learned, my metaphor for improvement is tending a garden, rather than going on a journey.
Of course, left to its own devices for any length of time, a garden will soon be covered in weeds again. But every now and then, the great pleasure of a garden is you can just sit back in it and enjoy a cup of tea while you admire what your hard work has achieved.  

This July, I am enjoying a metaphorical cup of tea in my improvement garden. I'll get back to the weeding in August.


PS: Although our improvement habits will continue, this is the very last improvement blogpost I will write. Tending our "improvement garden" has been a huge preoccupation of mine for the past three years, and the blog has covered that in detail for the best part of two of those years. But there's a lot more to being the Director of Communities than children's services improvement. I'll be back in the autumn with a new blog which I hope will shed some light on the other things that I do.

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

That's All Folks!

Written on: 19-5-2017

That's All Folks curtains image

They came. They saw. They judged. And then they went away again.

With the cheery impact of a Sharknado*, our Ofsted Inspection has whirled through our services and gone.

Before they left, we had an "Improvement and Next Steps" meeting, at which they fleshed out the basis of their judgements and told us where we stand. Of course, the judgements are provisional and have to go through a moderation process back at "Ofsted Central" before they can be confirmed, so we are sworn to secrecy until the publication of the final report. The timeline for this process is as follows:

  • 16 June - we receive the draft report for factual accuracy checking
  • 23 June - deadline for return of report after factual accuracy checks
  • 5 July - final report to us for information
  • 7 July - publication date

In the meantime, what can I tell you?

I can tell you that the impact of being inspected is extraordinary. I have clocked up over 130 working hours since the inspection was announced on 4 May, and I'm well aware that I was neither the first person in the building each day, nor the last to leave. As Director I'm in the fortunate position of being able to clear much of my calendar to focus on the inspection. By contrast, social workers and their managers have commitments to children and families that they must keep, while nevertheless contributing to the inspection effort. I have been so impressed by the way they have maintained their focus on the children and families they are working with.

The inspectors' focus on the detail of practice is appropriate, and I believe them when they say that conversations with individual social workers about their cases are meant to be positive. Despite this, the relentless digging for the thing not done, the decision not made promptly enough, the record not clear enough or any other deficit, does leave some social workers feeling battered by the experience. And then they have to go out on another visit. The process is rigorous, and it seems reasonably fair, but it isn't gentle. We try to make sure that we scoop up our staff and debrief them after any encounter to make sure they feel a level of support that balances out the challenge.

Our antiquated computer system - very soon to be replaced - doesn't help us; inspectors tell us certain things aren't on the file when often they are, just not always in the "obvious" place. Every time the right paperwork is produced and that line of enquiry closed down, it's another thing we can tick off the list, but it doesn't stop the heart from lurching when an inspector says: "I can't seem to find...".

For many elements of casework, we are walking a narrow causeway between two alternative flaws; e.g. strategy meetings not being multi-agency enough (only children's social care and police involved) vs strategy meetings not being promptly convened enough (when representation is broad but it's taken longer to get everyone together). It's a risk-based decision as to whether speed or broader representation is the priority in each case, and the gold standard is of course to achieve both, but each time we stray from that causeway it leaves us open to challenge.

Over analysing the inspectors' language is an occupational hazard. They try not to use words that in an Ofsted report have a specific meaning. So for example at the start of one KIT meeting, the Lead Inspector told us that if they happened to say "good" as they talked about practice on a case, we shouldn't think they meant "good" as a judgement. Elsewhere an inspector talked about something being "outstanding" - as in, not completed yet - and then stopped herself, while we all chuckled; obviously she didn't mean that kind of "Outstanding". We have learned from experience that if weakness is referred to as "serious" or "widespread" then that means big trouble. Whereas "a weakness" or "an area for development" (which we have heard a few times during the course of this inspection) signifies less a cause for concern and more of a learning opportunity. I try to keep a poker face if an inspector ever mentions the word "strength", though when that does happen my inner voice is cheering.

The timetabling is volatile as inspectors generate new lines of enquiry or close others down. We are so grateful for the strong collegial and partner relationships we have, which mean that people take this in their stride. We fret a little over decisions to close a line of enquiry, as inspectors tell us that they are satisfied they have seen enough. Does this mean that they have seen sound work and have no worries, or does it mean that they have concluded we have a weakness that no amount of additional evidence would counteract? I recall a conversation with an experienced DCS in a "good" authority who said to me, about the SIF: "By the time it got to the end, even I couldn't tell what the judgement would be." As the days pass it becomes ever more important to remind ourselves that we know our service well; that we are clear about the improvements we have made, the strengths we have, and the areas still for development.

Participating in an inspection is physically tiring, both the long hours and the running about (I'm comfortably making my 10,000 steps a day); mentally tiring, thanks to the constant planning, responding, reflecting, debating and managing; and emotionally tiring because everyone has so much energy and commitment invested in our improvement, and hoped-for success. There is a probably a psychological dissertation to be written on the cryptic meaning of my dreams during this two week period, though I don't think I'll share any more details here! Still, when I catch myself feeling weary, I remind myself that this inspection is only two weeks long. It was four weeks last time. How on earth were we all still standing at the end?

At the end of this inspection, we are all still standing. I am overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude for my colleagues, some of whom have had children doing exams or other significant personal pressures during these weeks. I am also truly grateful to our partners who have worked diligently with us over the past two years and who stood shoulder to shoulder with us in this inspection. I'd like to publicly thank them all.

Ofsted chooses to sum up a place in a word or two. A word or two could never do this shared effort justice.

*If you don't know what a Sharknado is, you're really missing out. Google 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.

One week later, a whole year older!

Written on: 15-5-2017

Children and Families Services Improvement Blog - picture of birthday cake with pink candles

It's the end of the first week of our Ofsted inspection. How has this week been?

This shorter inspection has its own set of guidance and associated timetable, but it tries to cover the full ground of the SIF, so the inspectors and the local authority all have to pack a huge amount into two short weeks. With this in mind, it's a real blessing to have the notification call on a Thursday for an inspection that starts on the Monday. No-one can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse in one weekend, so the integrity of the inspection process isn't marred, but having a couple of days free of the day-to-day business of the service in which to pull together the documentation required for the notorious "Annex A" and to upload the required lists and information onto The Huddle, certainly makes this mountain of work seem more manageable.

When the call came we pulled together our team of "responders". This team was minus a few crucial colleagues who were on holiday at the time, but we don't call people back, or prevent people from going on leave during an inspection, because we are confident in our back-up arrangements. We ran the necessary reports, allocated rooms to the inspection team and for meetings, arranged building access and IT for the inspectors, notified partners that they might be called upon and started to flesh out the skeleton timetable we had been provided with. By the Sunday some colleagues who had just returned from holiday were in the office. This is an impressive commitment; everyone seemed positive and willing.

We have coordinated the many layers of our inspection response through a single central e-mail box which is managed by a small group of business administrators supporting our principal social worker. She is the liaison point with the inspection team for all their requests and leads the quality assurance of the material that we send through for inspectors' attention. They work together in a single room set aside to support the inspection.

The strategic oversight of the inspection comes from twice daily internal Keep in Touch (KIT) meetings, at which I and the Heads of Service, with the Principal Social Worker, review all the lines of enquiry, or hares that have been set running, and make sure they have been followed up, or closed down as necessary. Our evening KIT takes place at 6:00pm and reviews everything we think we've been asked for during the day. We stick to a half hour for this, which makes sure that everyone has a couple more hours to get things done before the office closes for the night. We KIT again at 7:30 in the morning, to check whether the things we worked on the previous evening are all ready for uploading. We try to cross as much as we can off the "to do" list, before the next list arrives.

Between the two KITs, we hope to get some sleep. This is special "Ofsted sleep". The kind of sleep where you wake up five times in the night thinking "Ah! I must remember to..."
Throughout the week, colleagues who have finished their annual leave have been returning to join the inspection effort looking healthy and rested. Those of us who have been working flat out since the inspection was announced last Thursday are looking rather more peaky and tired. As for me, I've aged a whole year in a single week! In fairness to Ofsted, I can't really blame the cruel and unusual torments of an inspection for that, but rather a very un-birthday-like birthday in the middle of it all. Regardless of the inspection outcome, I'll celebrate being one year older when we're done.

At the end of every day, before I leave the office, I send an e-mail to all the staff involved in the inspection to let them know how the day has gone. On Friday evening I sent an end of the week e-mail to let people know that we are at least in a much better position one week into the inspection than we were the last time Ofsted came. Of course, inspectors play their cards very close to their chest, and a lot can happen in a week, so I don't rely too strongly on that snapshot, but after a week of extremely hard work, everyone needs a message that lifts their spirits.

Over the weekend, we had small groups of colleagues in; some preparing material for the inspection and others completing day-to-day work that had been pushed out of their schedules by the demands of the inspection. In this we have been supported by colleagues from the Council's Customer Services Team who agreed to work extra hours to cover the reception and maintain the security of the building while we worked. It's clear that the team effort goes way beyond the core teams.

We have one more week to endure. I hope I haven't aged another year by the end of 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.

They're heeeere*...!

Written on: 8-5-2017

There's some Ofsted guidance that is so new that (at the time of writing) the .GOV.UK webpage it's published on doesn't even have the latest update date logged. It states that the guidance for "Monitoring and re-inspection of local authority children's services judged inadequate" was last updated in August 2016. Nevertheless, the document contains a May 2017 update which, among other things, says this:

Children's Services Improvement Blog - Ofsted Notice Period
Children's Services Improvement Blog - Ofsted Notice Period

Luckily for us, the guidance arrived in my inbox late on the afternoon of Tuesday 2 May, and even luckier still, I found time to read it, and to think to myself "Crikey, that means we could get the call this Thursday!" before forwarding it onto my colleagues for their information.

It's just as well I did, because on Thursday morning, the call came through and the moment we have been waiting for is now upon us. By the time you read this, on Monday 8 May, the Ofsted inspection team will be on route to us and we will be as ready as we can possibly hope to be for our re-inspection.

The mood here is positive and although of course - of course! - people are thinking of loose ends they wished they'd tied up, or work in progress they wish was complete, by and large everyone is ready. The most common reaction among staff has been "Bring it on!" I'm very proud of that collective response.

We're feeling pleased about our decision the week before last to delay the implementation of our computer system replacement, and equally pleased that we went ahead with our Annex A "dry run" early last week before we got the call. This has made the intense preparation since the announcement much smoother than it might otherwise have been. Add to that the fact that two key senior managers were on annual leave last week, but returned this weekend just in time for the start of the inspection and it feels like luck is on our side - at least for now.

In the end though, the inspection outcome won't be down to luck, but to the impact of two years of extremely hard and focused work since our last inspection, and the next two weeks of digging extra deep to show us at our best.

*You may think that "They're heeeere...!" is eerily reminiscent of a 1980s horror franchise. I couldn't possibly comment.

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

Improving the System

Written on: 2-5-2017

Children's Services Improvement Blog - graphic of a man smashing a computer

My blogs during our improvement journey have flitted across many subjects, from young people's personal stories, to the number of social worker changes each young person has, and through recruitment and retention, data reporting, audit outcomes and project and programme board meetings. What I haven't blogged about is our computer system.

Computer systems don't change children's lives. They don't build relationships or exercise professional judgement; they don't show compassion or understanding; they don't reflect on their practice or help their colleagues offload at the end of a hard day. But they do contribute significantly - for better or worse - to the work of the directorate. Child and family social workers have long complained that the system they are required to use gets in the way of them doing their work effectively. At the time of our last inspection, we were committed to replacing this system and implementing a new one. This has proven to be one of the slowest areas of improvement to progress.

First the funds for a replacement system have to be secured, against competing demands from other projects within the Council's capital programme. In a world where many people use apps that are free, or cost pennies, jaws drop at the cost of a complex, core business system, which runs into millions of pounds. How many classrooms could we build for that? How many homes could we adapt?

Once the argument for funds is successfully made, the Council goes out to tender to procure the replacement system. In order to do this successfully, a comprehensive specification has to be drawn up. In this case, the system serves both the adults and the children's services so there has to be comprehensive coverage of both functions.

After the tendering process is complete, the successful system supplier engages in detailed ongoing work with the services to design and develop the system in full. This too takes time. Staff are released from direct work with children to collaborate with the design work of the supplier in order to make sure that the developing system meets social workers' needs. This is essential, but it still feels like a sacrifice for the service where every member of staff engaged in direct work is important, and moving a member of staff means re-allocating a caseload and suspending some of the relationships that have been developed.

As we get closer and closer to implementation, staff also need to be released for training and for testing. This too is set against the demands of busy caseloads.

A new system is an investment in service improvement; an investment of money, time and skill. At every stage we understand that this investment is necessary, but it can often feel that the "pay-off" is a long time coming. Here in West Berkshire we are approaching the end-stage - the long awaited implementation.

In the back of our minds there is also the prospect of our re-inspection. Whatever the dissatisfactions of our old system, everyone knows it pretty well and kind find their way around it. If inspectors are looking for key records or essential documents and can't locate them, we will be able to dig them out. With a new system, this understanding is much less secure. Even if the new system is more intuitive and easier to navigate around, the early days after implementation are likely to be challenging. Work that we are used to completing in a timely way may be held up; reports that we have always run may have glitches. No new system implementation passes without a hitch. The best that we can hope for are that glitches are minor.


Last week our Project Manager took the difficult call to delay the implementation of the new system by a month. Despite many of the required elements being in place, the necessary reporting capability to support an Ofsted inspection could not be guaranteed. A further data migration should resolve this problem, but all parties agreed that a "partial" system in this crucial area could not be countenanced. It would be grim for us if, after so much work to improve our practice, we could not properly demonstrate our improvement because the system did not enable us to do so.

Improving the computer system has been as much a part of our service improvement as all the other elements of our work. I hope that with the benefit of the extra month, we can pull it off.

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