Three years ago, Ofsted's inspectors left Kingston Council with few positives to report.
They had found "significant failings" in its child protection work, inconsistent decision making by professionals, "unacceptable drift" of cases, and team managers who lacked even basic performance management data. The inspectors deemed the south west London council's children's services "inadequate" and gave it the same verdict a year later after revisiting it.
Such fundamental flaws can take years to fully resolve, but when Ofsted reinspected the council this summer it found a children's service that was "transformed", rating the department "good". Nick Whitfield, Kingston's director of children's services, gives part of the credit for the rapid turnaround to the creation of Achieving for Children, the community interest company founded by Kingston and Richmond councils to jointly run their children's services area-wide.
"The Achieving for Children model really helped us to be focused on the children's agenda," says Whitfield, who is also chief executive of Achieving for Children and director of children's services for Richmond. "We've got two great councils that we're working with who want the best for kids, but the freedom that they've given us is, I think, really helpful."
One key benefit of moving services and staff into Achieving for Children is the stability it has brought to Kingston's social care workforce - it has gone from one reliant on locums to one that barely needs any, Whitfield adds. "The fact that we are one employer, rather than two with different terms and conditions, eases things up and we've now got better progression pathways for staff.
"We've only got about seven per cent locum social workers and part of that is because we can give opportunities to people to move between the two boroughs."
Another key change has been the creation of a Single Point of Access (SPA) team, which acts as the first port of call for the public and professionals with concerns about a child. "It means that people get a very speedy return on any question they have raised," says Whitfield. "We get back to people as fast as we can, usually within 24 hours. It means we can get intervention in as early as we can."
Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) is also part of the SPA team, which Ofsted says has led to improved timeliness of mental health assessments and access to treatment. "It has speeded up the movement through to CAMHS because we get a really good assessment of the child's and family's needs at the earliest point of contact into the authority," says Whitfield.
While a lot has changed at Kingston, Whitfield says turning around the service was a process of constant, gradual improvement. "We always talk about improving in bite-size chunks," he says. "We take something that needs improvement and sort it out. Once we get to a place where we feel that's pretty good now, we can focus on the next bit of improvement. But you don't stop looking back to make sure you haven't slipped because if you don't look you can find your good slips backwards again."
- Name: Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames
- Location: London
- Description: Children's services in Kingston upon Thames are delivered by Achieving for Children, a community interest company founded by Kingston and Richmond councils. Of the borough's 36,000 children and young people under 18, 14 per cent live in relative poverty and a third are from ethnic minority backgrounds. At 31 May 2015, 906 children had been identified as children in need, 134 had child protection plans and 118 were being looked after by the borough.
- Number of children: Approximately 36,000 under-18s live in Kingston.
Learn from serious case reviews (SCRs). "We really do take seriously what we can learn from SCRs," says Nick Whitfield, chief executive of Achieving for Children. "If we have one locally, we learn from that, but we also learn from those elsewhere about what makes the difference when you are dealing with neglect or domestic violence for example."
Get staff input. Achieving for Children encourages its staff to think like leaders and suggest ways to improve the efficiency, speed and quality of the work it does with children and families. The organisation's latest development is its new 'innovation hub', where workers come together to explore projects that could improve services. "Staff will put forward their proposals and then small groups of people will look at that to see if it's something we should put funding into," says Whitfield.
Be hopeful. "There was just a vast amount of work to be done at the beginning and that felt enormous," says Whitfield. "You have to have a real sense of optimism that you can do it. You have to believe in yourself and in your team. You have to absolutely not accept poor performance and you have to draw on all the strengths of your partnerships."