"Our service director called us all together to tell us about the Ofsted report," says Owen, a team manager in Essex's young people with disability service.
"We weren't sure how we had done. We did really well in the 2014 inspection when we got a ‘good' rating and we thought we had done well this time, but we didn't know we would get the outstanding.
"When we were told it was just amazing; everyone's been buzzing ever since."
The outstanding Ofsted also underlines how much social work in Essex has changed since Owen joined the authority in 2009.
Investing in practice
"I was newly qualified and it was quite different," he recalls. "Essex had just failed its Ofsted and was in improvement. I felt I got a really good support package during my first year and I enjoyed it but as a service we were not in the right place at all.
"There was a lack of confidence among the social workers. It was also difficult to get training. The courses were always fully booked and only came around every four months."
Today, those problems are now distant memories.
Essex is not only rated outstanding by Ofsted, but was named the Best Social Worker Employer at the 2018 Social Worker of the Year Awards.
A big factor in the turnaround has been the council's continuing professional development (CPD) offer. It's an offer driven by the Essex Social Care Academy. The academy is not just a provider of training - it's an integral part of the service that constantly supports Essex social workers to be the best social workers they can be.
And it's why Essex is the only local authority accredited by the British Association of Social Workers for excellence in CPD.
Owen knows the benefits it has to offer first hand: "You know, I now can't recall any years where I wasn't doing some kind of CPD that was helping develop my practice."
Over the years Essex has supported Owen to learn British Sign Language and gain a practice educator qualification from the University of Essex.
He's also done a masters in children's social work at the University of East Anglia that developed his understanding of child development and how to apply that knowledge to his practice.
What else does Essex offer?
- An unwavering belief in the value of direct work
- A stable workforce with few agency workers
- More than 300 practice educators
- A strengths- and relationship-based approach to social work
- A culture of continued self-reflection driven by a desire to help everyone in Essex live the best lives they can
Owen also enrolled in the council's Aspiring Managers programme, which allows senior practitioners to see if going into management is right for them.
"When I got involved with Aspiring Managers I wasn't looking at going into management but there was no obligation on me to go into management after finishing it so I went for it," he says.
As part of the programme, Owen received a protected caseload, mentoring, on-the-job learning and training. And after completing the programme, Owen applied for and got his current role as team manager in the county's service for 16- to 25-year-olds with disabilities.
Today, he says, the range of CPD for Essex social workers is immense, ranging from advising social workers with practice questions to supporting them to do masters courses.
"During my time here I've seen Essex become a real learning organisation - there's just so much investment in our development," says Owen, who won a silver award at the 2018 Social Worker of the Year Awards. "For me that was the thing that made the turnaround. Now you can just go on our intranet and search for any training you want and, so long as your manager approves, you get to go on that training."
Developing specialist knowledge
The breadth of CPD on offer is a big reason why Owen has zero interest in agency social work.
"When I left university most of my fellow students went locum because it pays more," he says. "That pull is always there and I do get agencies calling me trying to get me to work for them but I've always valued the training and support I get here.
"Often when people go into agency work they overlook the value of the training and consistent support you get as a permanent social worker. Here, I can follow and develop specialisms that interest me professionally.
"People here can really specialise because of that. So if, for example, child sexual exploitation is an area of work you are interested in, you can really develop that specialism."
Confident social workers
The support from the Essex Social Care Academy has also given Essex County Council's social workers much more confidence too.
"The injection of CPD really increased our confidence," says Owen. "I can really see how the confidence of social workers here has changed because of that investment and how people really want to develop their specialist skills now."
That confidence also comes from being in an authority where social workers know they can rely on support from senior managers too.
"By its very nature, social work is a challenging job and if you don't think you have support that's a big additional stressor that really doesn't need to be there," says Owen.
Knowing children well
"With Essex you don't feel you are alone," he says. "The managers and service leaders are very visible and not in a tokenistic way either. I don't have to go through channel after channel just to speak to anyone at the top.
"We often see Helen Lincoln wandering around the teams and although she's the executive director you feel you can speak to her - you don't feel hesitant about approaching her or her approaching you."
Owen also appreciates Helen's emphasis on spending time with children and families.
"She's put a real emphasis on making sure every child is seen regularly so that we really get to know the children we work with and their families," he says. "The outcome of that is that we feel confident that we know the children, young people and families we work with."
- Essex are proud to host their annual industry leading FREE Social Care CPD conference on Wednesday 1st May. To register for the event please click here