North East Lincolnshire Council: Local Spotlight

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, July 27, 2021

New leadership team has changed the culture and delivered improvements at struggling council but workforce challenges remain.

Significant regeneration plans have been approved for North East Lincolnshire but recruitment of experienced children’s social workers has proved difficult during the pandemic. Picture: simon/Adobe Stock
Significant regeneration plans have been approved for North East Lincolnshire but recruitment of experienced children’s social workers has proved difficult during the pandemic. Picture: simon/Adobe Stock

Recruiting a new management team to lead children’s services improvement is not easily done during a global health pandemic, but that was what North East Lincolnshire Council had to do in early 2020.

The council, which includes within its boundaries the major Humber Estuary towns of Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham, received two critical Ofsted reports in 2019 that culminated in then director of children’s services (DCS) Steve Kay stepping down in November that year after a decade at the authority.

Serious weaknesses

Those reports found serious weaknesses in front door decision-making that were failing to protect children at risk of significant harm and failing to ensure vulnerable children had their needs met.

The cracks in the service were picked up by local media which reported children on child protection plans were going months without seeing a social worker and high caseloads were hampering the work of practitioners.

Kay was initially replaced by the council’s deputy chief executive Joanne Hewson before assistant director Lisa Arthey, who joined from Reading Council in March 2020 just as lockdown restrictions were imposed, was appointed DCS late last year.

A new Ofsted focused visit report, published in late June, highlights how the pandemic has proved “challenging for the new leadership team to get alongside staff and drive cultural and organisational change”, which it states has moved at a slower pace than planned.

Despite this, the inspectorate praised the “committed” leadership team for being “more transparent and aware of the areas for improvement” and having an accurate evaluation of services. Strong support from the council, including an additional £2m to invest in children’s services, “is enabling tighter and evidence-informed leadership and management” says Ofsted, adding that social work practice is also improving, “albeit from a low base”.

Sufficiency and stability

Inspectors were, however, concerned about the sufficiency and stability of the social care workforce. Figures used for a Department for Education report last year showed North East Lincolnshire as having the highest social worker caseloads in England, with an average of 32.7 per social worker. Latest data shows it has fallen since. Arthey says it has dropped to an average of 22 now, although stresses the complexity of the workload is as important as case numbers (see DCS view).

High caseloads are the result of a shortage of permanent staff, with vacancy and agency rates above the regional and national averages (see graphics). Ofsted recognised how the pandemic has made recruitment more difficult but a renewed workforce development strategy should help turn this around.

Arthey says the area is “beautiful” with a “real sense of place”. Major regeneration plans have been approved that should improve housing, transport and employment prospects, which she says was another factor that attracted her to the role and area.

However, this much-needed investment will take time to have an impact: the area has high rates for children eligible for free school meals, living in low-income households and not in education, employment or training. The impact that the pandemic has had on the most deprived children could also deepen inequalities, so the challenges for Arthey and her new leadership team look set to continue.

DCS view: ‘We’ve shifted from being about removing children to supporting families’

Lisa Arthey, director of children’s services, North East Lincolnshire

My first day in the office was 23 March 2020, the start of the initial lockdown. It was a surreal experience. I’ve been here nearly 18 months and I still haven’t met all the workforce – I’ve only met the chief executive twice.

When we return to the office we’ll use a hybrid model of working between office and home based. It used to be quite a traditional approach to employment practices but it will be more flexible going forward; offices have been changed to facilitate more MS Teams meetings.

However, social workers do need in-person supervision, I’m a real believer in that, particularly for child protection workers. I have some great staff, but the most frustrating thing is that they haven’t had a chance to get a true sense of me. There hasn’t been a lot of trust in listening to staff previously. We want to do things in a different way. They need to understand I come with knowledge of doing the job, I have walked the walk.

My management style is to be visible and hands on, so the pandemic has made that difficult. A director of children’s services needs to have a clear line of sight of their staff so they can see how they work. It’s so important, more so than just looking at data all the time.

In September and October, we’re moving to multi-agency teams involving education, health and social care staff. It is part of our early help strategy to focus on keeping children at home if possible rather than taking them into care. We’re developing a strengths-based model of supporting families which is a cultural shift from the more process-driven approach before. We have also changed the language we use specifically to encourage participation of the child – it’s all about listening to the voice of the child.

We’ve already created a family support worker role that links early help and social work teams with the aim of eliminating some of the risk factors in a child’s life. Meanwhile, an edge of care team has been developed to work intensively with children at greater risk.

We are already starting to see results: child protection plans are down from 451 when I joined to 227 now. The number of children in care is falling too – we’ve exited more than 1,000 children from the service since last March and there are a further 400 that are working their way through. It would have been more but for the restrictions of the pandemic.

Ofsted confirmed what we already knew – the two main areas we need to address are recruitment and retention and caseloads. Ofsted and the Department for Education get caught up on numbers but for me it is the complexity of the workload that is key. We still have a few teams with high numbers of complex cases, but the average overall is 22 cases per worker now. It’s been difficult to recruit because people haven’t been moving jobs as much but we expect to recruit more permanent experienced staff.

There is wider regeneration of the area which is focused on generating jobs for local people and we want to see the infrastructure built for young people to thrive, particularly those who perhaps don’t do so well academically. The area is on a huge regeneration journey over the next few years – it’s one of the reasons I came here and wanted to stay.

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