Inspections Clinic: Sector-led improvement

Hampshire County Council is one of a handful of high-performing local authorities that helps struggling councils improve children's services, but the benefits flow both ways, as Jo Stephenson reports.

This summer, Hampshire County Council became one of only a handful of local authorities to be rated "outstanding" across the board for its children's services. Inspectors praised the high quality of social work, clear management oversight, support for staff, and leaders' vision and ambition for the service.

They also highlighted the fact the authority has played a key role helping others at the same time as implementing its own "ambitious transformation programme". "The outward-facing senior leadership team firmly embraces innovation, ensuring a focus on continuous improvement, while supporting local authorities through its engagement in sector-led improvement," says the inspection report.

Leaders recognise the benefits in being an improvement partner "not only in creating income, but also in the learning that is gained from other local authorities and from keeping its own staff stimulated and stretched", it adds.

The authority's work with others has "undoubtedly" contributed to its outstanding inspection rating, according to Stuart Ashley, Hampshire's assistant director for children and families. "It has been a factor because it has given us confidence that the fundamentals of what we're doing are the right thing to do and a pot pourri of ideas," he says.

"We have made some fundamental changes to the way we deliver children's social care and those ideas we picked up from working with other colleagues have certainly fed into that."

The authority has worked with other councils as an official improvement adviser brokered by the Department for Education and as part of the Partners in Practice scheme, through which it has worked with 10 authorities across the South East that have voluntarily taken up its offer of support and advice.

When children's services on the Isle of Wight were rated "inadequate" in 2012, Hampshire was asked to work with the council in what has become a successful partnership that has seen the island move to an overall rating of "good".

"Over the years, we have learned a lot about how you can deliver improvement to services where it's needed and also at the same time learn from what you're doing to improve services in Hampshire," says Ashley. "We have a good track record and when we're asked if we can offer support to another authority, we have a good understanding of how you can do that in a way that benefits both authorities."

He is clear one reason for working with other authorities is "because we learn as an organisation". "My managers experience working with colleagues facing different challenges - as an organisation, I'm clear we grow because of that," he says.

Improvement ideas

Whenever the authority works with others, it gains ideas to improve its own practice.

For example, when Hampshire first went to the Isle of Wight, the team was particularly struck by the way the island supported children in care with their education, says Ashley.

"We thought it was a really good model and we looked to implement that in Hampshire. Things moved on and the whole service has changed now but that was a really good example of us saying ‘wow'," he adds.

Meanwhile, the authority's social work model - the "Hampshire Approach" - has also been influenced by practice observed elsewhere, especially in authorities that use the Signs of Safety model.

"While we don't want to subscribe to Signs of Safety - we wanted to develop our own model - there are some elements we like and all of these little elements feed in and fuel our continuous development," says Ashley.

As well as being an opportunity for learning and identifying good practice, there are other gains to be had in working with other councils.

"If anything, I would say it is a good retention tool because it offers people the opportunity to do something completely different while having the security of their role in Hampshire," he says.

"You don't often get those opportunities to go and work with colleagues in other authorities, experience a completely different culture and organisation, and still have your own job to come back to at the end of the day."

Feedback from Hampshire employees is very positive. "The more different experiences you have, the greater your skillset becomes so I don't have difficulties finding volunteers to be part of a team," says Ashley.

An internal peer inspection programme helps prepare staff at Hampshire for working with services and colleagues elsewhere.

Introduced eight years ago, this sees teams of 10 to 12 social workers, team managers, middle and senior managers from one district go to another area of Hampshire and assess services using the Ofsted inspection framework.

"We have about one of those a month across the year and that includes a team from the Isle of Wight coming into Hampshire and vice versa," says Ashley. "There is lots of learning for the people who are being ‘inspected' and it prepares them for the real thing from Ofsted. But also there is a lot of learning for those doing the inspection. They learn what to look for, what questions to ask, how to set a positive tone, so collectively we grow from that."

Under the Partners in Practice scheme, Hampshire has looked at different aspects of children's services at neighbouring councils. "For example, one authority has asked us to look at their performance framework, while another has asked us to look at their MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) to help advise them - that is purely voluntary and the authority doesn't pay us," he explains.

However, Hampshire does earn income as an improvement adviser supporting struggling authorities, although Ashley says the authority tends to "break even at best".

Hampshire is a strong supporter of sector-led improvement, Ashley stresses. "My view of the children's sector is that we are the experts and we need to share best practice," he says. "Sector-led improvement is fundamental to improving services generally for vulnerable children."


  1. Consistency of leadership. Consistency of leadership has been critical to Hampshire's success, says Stuart Ashley. "We have achieved that by investing in our staff and managers, and growing our own. It is a major contributory factor because we have had a vision and people have been able to buy into that over time," he says. "We haven't achieved this quickly. It has been built on really solid foundations that probably stretch back a decade."
  2. Creating the right conditions for social work to thrive. "I like to think we have created - and are continuing to create - the right conditions for social work practice," says Ashley, "so that managers take responsibility for managing and social workers are safe to practice." The appointment of personal assistants to support social workers, improved technology and the implementation of strengths-based social work model the "Hampshire Approach" are among positive steps highlighted in the inspection report that "have equipped social workers with the tools, skills and time to work directly with children and families". "Consequently, children's needs are better understood, intervention is purposeful, and children and families are being helped to become more resilient," it states.
  3. Strong political and corporate support. Hampshire's children's services could not have achieved the top Ofsted rating without strong political and corporate support, says Ashley. This is also a factor highlighted by inspectors. "Corporate and political leaders demonstrate a solid commitment to children's services," says the inspection report. "They are confident in the leadership team's vision for future-proofing the service and have committed substantial financial investment to make that vision a reality." This has included investing in Hampshire's own graduate-entry trainee scheme, with about 100 newly qualified social workers recruited to date.
  4. Ongoing focus on improvement. While the council is proud to have achieved "outstanding" across the board, the quest to improve does not end there, says Ashley. "We'll celebrate it for a few weeks and then it is time to say ‘So what next?' How can we get even better and improve those outcomes for children?' We're not resting on our laurels." The authority's transformation programme is now entering a second phase that will include looking at new and improved ways to deliver services to children in care and care leavers, and support foster carers. "We know that we can do it differently and at the moment we're working through what that model might look like," says Ashley.
  5. No quick wins. All of the above takes time and effort, says Ashley. "One of the things I have been asked a lot since we got outstanding across all domains is ‘What are the quick wins?'. And I have to say there aren't any. You build a service up over time and we're fortunate we have been able to do that in Hampshire."


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