This year marks a decade since Jenny Coles became director of children’s services for Hertfordshire. Over that time, Coles has overseen gradual improvement in services, moving from an “adequate” rating for child protection services in 2013 to “good” in 2015’s single inspection framework assessment and the same judgment in 2018. In that most recent judgment, Ofsted praised the “outstanding” leadership across children’s services in Hertfordshire up to and including the council chief executive and elected member for children and families.
Openness and accountability
The report cites a robust culture of “openness” and accountability among senior leaders as crucial to the success in the department.
“Senior leaders are conscientious in holding each other to account,” the report states. “Knowing that, as the chief executive likes to say, ‘bad news doesn’t get better by not talking about it’, managers are encouraged to ‘tell it how it is’. There are no secrets and no attempts to shy away from recurrent challenges…in fact, senior leaders’ approach is one of openness and transparency. At an operational level, this organisational culture is helping to create an environment in which social work is flourishing.”
The “open, honest, appropriately self-critical and essentially accurate” approach to self-evaluation also ensures there are few surprises when it comes to services, it adds.
“Senior leaders have a good understanding of what is happening at the frontline,” it states. “With one exception, this inspection told them very little that they did not already know about themselves, their staff or their services.”
The settled leadership team is also reflected in a stable children’s workforce – hard for any authority, let alone one within commuting distance of London boroughs. Turnover, vacancy and agency rates are well below regional and national averages (see graphics). The report highlights how low caseloads mean “social workers have the time and space to build meaningful relationships, and do purposeful work, with children and families”, an important factor in reducing turnover.
Services to support families in need of help and protection and those supporting looked-after children and care leavers were both rated “good” in 2018. Partnership working with adult services was highlighted as playing a crucial role in facilitating “creative solutions to long-standing and/or deeply entrenched problems, including those associated with parental substance misuse, mental ill-health and/or domestic violence”.
Looked-after children levels have remained consistently low over the past five years thanks in part to improving intensive support for families in need, however rising numbers of teenagers in care are putting pressure on residential placements, explains Coles (see below).
Also, too many come into care in an emergency, while the number moving placement and placed out of authority are also too high. “Senior leaders are acutely aware of this and of the potentially damaging and disruptive impact on the lives of children and young people,” Ofsted states.
To address some of these challenges, the council is developing more in-house care placements including the number of residential care places available. It is also involved in sector-wide efforts to develop national standards for unregistered settings.
Embracing innovation is also reflected in the council’s involvement in the children’s social care innovation programme which led to it being able to develop its approach to early help and to radically transform the way in which family safeguarding services are delivered.
It now hopes to apply this innovative approach to special educational needs and disability services – over the last year, the council has reshaped alongside parents its local offer with the aim of offering more support and advice to children with special needs and their families (see below).
EXTENDING RESIDENTIAL CARE CAPACITY
By Jenny Coles, director of children’s services, Hertfordshire
What we’ve seen over the last two years is the rise in demographic pressures. We have a rising population of children and young people and a changing profile – we could see we needed to get ahead of that.
With SEND, we were seeing more children being educated outside the authority boundary, and parents were telling us they weren’t happy. We were also seeing less stability in residential and foster care placements and more children going out-of-area. It has been a real challenge, but by improving wraparound care and developing links between children in care and their extended family and friends the situation has improved.
In response to a rise in the number of teenagers in care we have analysed the council estate to identify where we can increase residential capacity. By Easter, we’ll have two small residential units open, one run by the council and another by a partner organisation. Also, a children’s home that had been mothballed for some years is to be reopened, while a short break centre is to be repurposed. We think that will provide enough extra capacity. The council decided to use our facilities because feedback from independent providers was that property is too expensive to open new provision.
We are also the lead authority in the East of England on a regional quality assurance framework for regulated residential provision. We have been reviewing all of the standards that are used when quality assurance visits are undertaken by councils with a view to updating and improving standards.
ONLINE SOLUTIONS TO RISING SEND DEMAND
By David Butcher, head of SEND transformation
Hertfordshire is experiencing challenges to supporting children, young people and their families with SEND. We’ve seen a 72 per cent growth in the number of education, health and care plans since the 2014 reforms, increasing demand for specialist provision and independent placements.
Supported by a £3m investment, we’ve created the capacity to make significant and lasting difference. We’re increasing places in existing special schools, developing a new free special school for September 2022 and introducing a new approach from this month to funding children with SEND in our mainstream schools to foster a stronger approach to inclusion.
We’re also nurturing more collaborative local delivery of health, social care and education services through the development of a range of specific strategies, from improved autism diagnosis pathways and early years specialist provision, to improving pathways to employment and independence.
Seeing familiar issues and processes through new eyes – and co-producing solutions with families – is key to our ambition. It’s at the heart of our redesigned online Local Offer focusing on finding digital solutions to life’s offline challenges for SEND families. Three months of intensive user research with families and regular testing with an online feedback group were crucial to the development of the new website which went live in January.
Over the next year, we’ll be applying the same philosophy to getting our education, health and care plan processes fully online, and improving our wider information and advice.