Children’s services in Worcestershire has been struggling for much of the decade – its safeguarding and looked-after children services were judged “inadequate” in 2010, and although this improved to “requires improvement” in 2012, another visit by Ofsted in late 2016 saw the department rated inadequate again.
There was little sign of improvement over the following 18 months, leading to the Department for Education ordering in 2018 Worcestershire County Council to establish a “wholly owned” company to run children’s social care services.
The new organisation – Worcestershire Children First – launched in shadow form in April before going live in October.
The alternative delivery model is similar to that used in other areas with two distinct differences: in addition to social care, the company will also run fostering, education and early help provision; and chief executive of Worcestershire Children First Catherine Driscoll has retained the director of children’s services (DCS) role at the council.
“That’s really important for me,” Driscoll says of her dual role. “Being a DCS is a huge privilege and I’d have been very sad to lose it, but more importantly when we’re in tough financial circumstances having two roles fighting for the same turf makes no sense.”
Driscoll says the rationale for transferring wider services to the company was two-fold: to avoid “another organisational divide in what is an already complex system” and so the company has a greater say in ensuring “children and young people grow up happy, healthy and safe”.
“It takes a village to raise a child – it isn’t just work at the front door of social services that can achieve that,” she adds.
It has cost £3.7m to create the new company, 10 per cent over what was budgeted. This, says Driscoll, is largely down to higher legal costs linked to property leases and transfer of premises ownership. Around 800 staff have transferred to the company, which will have a budget of £100m a year.
Alongside this, the council has pumped an additional £20m into children’s services since 2017 as part of a three-year recovery programme. Driscoll has “made the case” for that level of investment to continue but says she and the council are “still talking” about next year’s budget.
The extra investment has already paid dividends: the introduction of financial incentives alongside improved professional development opportunities has seen a massive rise in permanent workers – from 40 per cent in 2017 to 85 per cent now – and staff turnover is down from 30 to 13 per cent over the same period (see graphics). Crucially, Ofsted revisited in the summer and upgraded the department to requires improvement.
There are around 120,000 under-18s living in Worcestershire, 22 per cent of whom live in poverty households. It has lower than average rates of free school meal uptake, English as an additional language and children from minority ethnic groups.
Driscoll says Worcestershire is a good place to live with lots of opportunities for young people, but has challenges too. “My top area of focus is on mental health and emotional wellbeing,” she says. “That’s what teachers say to me they are struggling with in schools and we’re doing a lot of work with mental health services to lower waiting lists and develop preventative support.”
Improving outcomes for children will be litmus test for our work
By Catherine Driscoll, Worcestershire DCS and chief executive Worcestershire Children First
I joined in June 2016, four months before the Ofsted inspection. It was a baptism of fire – services were not where they should have been.
The initial business plan for Worcestershire Children First was for social care and safeguarding services to sit in it, but when we looked at the impact we wanted to achieve we decided we needed to broaden the scope of the company to include education and early help services.
Setting up the company is such a massive piece of work and all your energy can go on that rather than improving services. That’s why my priority has always been to improve outcomes for children. It can sound trite, but when doing a piece of work we now test if it is improving outcomes such as seeing children more quickly.
Improving the workforce has been our number one priority in our improvement plan. We have high expectations, but also good support and challenge so that if you don’t get things quite right we can look at the evidence and change them. We have small social work teams of five practitioners to one manager which enables good supervision and oversight of cases.
We’ve improved the recruitment and retention of permanent staff and turnover is down. Some staff who haven’t been able to meet the expectations have moved on – some said that we were so desperate for staff we’d take them if they were breathing. I’d rather have a vacancy.
We were very low payers in the region and have had political support to address this. Frontline safeguarding social workers receive a welcome payment of £3,000 and a retention payment of £3,000 after one year, and foster care social workers receive welcome and retention payments of £2,000.
We’ve also invested in the Signs of Safety approach and created a social work academy run by a manager who oversees all continuing professional development. We are a place now where social work can flourish.
Looked-after children rates remain high at around 70 per 10,000 but we took more children into care after the 2017 Ofsted judgment as we didn’t have the right children in care. The rate will reduce but it will take a long time as we have a large number of teenagers who are settled in stable placements and we are not going to move them just to get the numbers down. Whether we should have taken them into care in the first place is another question, but we have to do what’s best for the child now. We have low rates of children coming into care and we are discharging children appropriately so we’re turning the curve.
Ofsted highlighted that the council has been doing too much in the early help space and filling gaps left by other agencies. We’re talking to schools and health about what they can do to support early help provision.
The government required us to set up a company but it won’t improve services one jot without the right people working in the right way with the right resources. We’ve got to make sure the company supports improvement and not get in the way of it.