The high quality of relationships is evident throughout the Ofsted report into North Tyneside Council’s children’s services department, which was rated “outstanding” in March.
The report includes numerous examples of relationship building, such as the strong bonds social workers forge with vulnerable children and families, how different teams work together within the department, and the way a range of agencies collaborate to deliver effective local safeguarding services.
The focus on relationships comes from the top of the organisation – Jacqui Old, director of children’s services (DCS) at North Tyneside Council, cites building and managing relationships as a “basic of good leadership” (see DCS view). Old has overseen a transformation of the structures and practice approaches used in the department since being appointed in 2015.
Although she inherited a department rated “good” by inspectors for safeguarding and fostering services, Old found a silo culture existed across the department, resulting in children moving “to and fro” between different teams.
A reorganisation of the department has seen different teams moved into a locality-based structure, resulting in better quality interactions between practitioners, says Old, with a more seamless flow of cases from early help to children’s social care.
Ofsted was impressed with the strategic partnerships between health, education and the police, which it says illustrates “open and honest relationships, mutual respect and a strong commitment to reciprocal challenge”.
This work is underpinned by the adoption of the Signs of Safety approach, in which every practitioner across the department has been trained. This, says Ofsted, has also been adopted by partner agencies and has had a “transformational impact”.
“It provides a common language with which to talk about and explore issues and concerns, needs and risks, dangers and protective factors in a way that is easy to understand for parents, professionals and partners,” the report states.
In terms of outcomes for children, the focus on relationships again comes to the fore. The council no longer excludes large numbers of school pupils, instead moving to an approach where “exclusions are few and far between”.
Attainment of looked-after children has risen closer to national averages since the shift – as of March, 87.5 per cent of children in care achieved expected levels in reading, maths and science at Key Stage 1, higher than their non-looked-after peers in North Tyneside.
The department has focused efforts on keeping families together wherever possible and has introduced early help co-ordinators to work intensively with families that are struggling to prevent problems escalating.
The work has paid off – North Tyneside’s looked-after children rate has remained stable for the past five years, when it has risen 20 per cent in the North East region (see graphics).
It is also developing a more intensive support offer for adolescents at risk of going into care due to behaviour and relationship problems.
“In the past, taking older children out of homes hasn’t worked. So while working intensively with them may cause short-term challenges, we hope it will break the cycle of problems in the long term,” adds Old.
Meanwhile, the department’s commitment to supporting the sector’s improvement is reflected in the fact it was recently awarded Partner in Practice status by the Department for Education.
DCS VIEW: ‘INTEGRATING EARLY HELP AND SOCIAL CARE IMPROVES PARTNERSHIP WORKING’
Jacqui Old, DCS, North Tyneside Council
Our success is down to a focus on people; it drives everything we do. The basics of good leadership are about good relationship building and management. We’re quite a flat management structure and not particularly hierarchical. This creates a climate of openness and transparency. I meet with staff every day which means you have a level of connectivity and keeps you grounded.
When I took on the children’s brief in 2015, we had a number of services that weren’t as integrated as they could have been – for example, early help and social care. To overcome this, we brought a range of partners and teams together into both our early help locality teams and our multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH), including early help, social care, education, police, disability and domestic violence services. It meant everyone had an understanding of each other’s challenges and were able to share ideas about how to solve families’ problems.
The early help locality structure sees multi-agency teams support clusters of schools to work with them to keep children in school and know the needs of local families and communities well. Teams meet twice a day to look at cases from different perspectives.
The early help hub in our MASH then morphed out of thinking on how to further improve our early help response. When early help was operating as a separate service, there wasn’t a strong partnership between teams as there is now, under one team structure.
When we brought the teams together, we noticed each one had a different language to describe children, which you then had to almost demystify. To tackle this, we introduced Signs of Safety, a strengths-based model, throughout the department and across the partnership.
All senior managers did five days training. We were told it would take three to five years to fully embed the approach. In some areas, I’ve seen Signs of Safety introduced gradually across a workforce through a “drip” approach to training staff, but I wanted to do it in 18 months. By training everyone over a shorter period, you change the language and culture of the workforce at the same time. The approach helps identify what strengths the child or young person has and how we can build on those, using the wider network that is in place to support the child/young person.
We’ve extended this philosophy further through our partnership with Barnardo’s on developing trauma-informed practice. We’ve applied this approach to workforce wellbeing so that staff can share ideas about what steps can be taken to make them happier and better at their jobs. It can be small, low-cost things like setting up exercise classes or praising a colleague’s piece of work. Having that good communication means that if something hasn’t gone right, we can ask questions and probe rather than making a judgment about it.
In children’s social care where the risk is so high, there isn’t always an easy solution, but if you work in fear of getting it wrong then you end up making more mistakes.
We have a strong participation team which was recognised by Ofsted. Our top priority is children and young people – they’re our litmus test as to whether we are doing the right things. Those working in the participation team help us make sure what we do is meeting children’s needs.