Jacky Tiotto, Director Children’s Services, London Borough of Bexley
Published in the Management Journal — 31st January 2019
There is nothing like the sense of joy, relief, pride and gratitude that hits you when an Ofsted inspection concludes that your services are making a sustained difference to the lives of local children, young people, families and carers. The inspectorate call this ‘outstanding’ and they awarded the judgement to Bexley last August.
Since then, we have celebrated, reflected and tried to remain grounded. One of the hardest things has been trying to identify the key milestones and changes on our journey: from inadequacy in 2012, to a fragile ‘requires improvement’ in 2014, onto ‘outstanding’ in 2018.
We have concluded that there are probably six fundamental elements to sustaining the overall improvement and development of children’s services:
First is a vision together with an associated practice framework to shape work with families. Our vision comes directly from a principle set out in the 1989 Children Act — that the upbringing of children should be in their families, who receive high quality support for as long as they need it, to be a stronger and safer support network. This means that we try to avoid the need for formal intervention through the courts, unless not doing so causes a child or children further harm. This is at the heart of our practice environment.
Our social workers and managers believe deeply in this principle. They have been able to commit to it through the use of ‘Signs of Safety’ as the language and culture for our practice. It is built on a belief that trusted and collaborative relationships enable change, that families have solutions to their difficulties and that no parent wants to actively fail and be separated from their children.
Second and third are the practice environment, alongside local political and corporate commitment. Social workers cannot form deep and lasting relationships with families and children if they are overwhelmed by their caseloads. How many children can one person really engage with at any one time — especially when their difficulties are complex and enduring? We have set the bar at no more than 17 — and we would like it to be fewer. We have also learnt that low caseloads have to be matched by ‘hands-on’ management oversight and engagement. The size of our teams is based on managers being able to know the families they are helping, being able to regularly take part in discussions about what is working and what isn’t and finding time to listen to family feedback about what we need to do better or differently.
No practice environment can be constructed without the investment of councillors and significant support from colleagues. For us, this has shown itself in strong Cabinet members, a Council leader who understands the importance of families in communities and a corporate leadership team who share our concern for the welfare and development of children. Every quarter, the director and lead member conduct a full scrutiny of performance and outcomes for children with all managers and the senior team. In return, we benefit from their confidence, trust and investment in our work to support families to stay together. This has been complemented by support from the wider Council: performance teams, communications partners, HR and legal services, complaints colleagues, graphics specialists and administrative expertise.
Fourthly, how leaders show up at the frontline is a big factor in effective outcomes for families. How does it feel for practitioners and managers to be led? This has possibly been the hardest fundamental to get right. Maintaining the fragile balance between creative practice with families and strong reflective oversight needs daily attention. Practitioners must have the confidence to help families find solutions without worrying that any mistakes will result in punishing conversations and blame if things are not working out.
We talk regularly about the importance of ‘showing our workings out’ so that our judgements can be understood. My role means I will be called on to explain a judgement if a child is further harmed while we are working with their family. This is a necessary accountability. But practitioners and managers cannot predict the future with certainty. What we ask is that the judgements and decisions that are made can be explained against what was known at the time, not with hindsight. As long as this is clear, understandable and has been overseen well, practitioners know they can take the decisions they need to, in the best interests of children. The skill and effectiveness of leaders comes in holding this balance every day. That means creating consistency of oversight in the practice culture, at the same time as allowing the relationship-led judgements of practitioners to be loudly heard.
The fifth pillar in our journey has been the extent to which senior leaders and politicians pay attention to recruitment, retention and communication. While there will always be some movement, deep attention has to be given to what is in place to retain, develop and satisfy practitioners doing difficult work. This needs to be creative and connected to the vision for practice. We have had to learn to seek feedback all the time about how it feels to practice in Bexley. Repetition and discussion about the same things are necessary to consolidate everything that we’re attempting.
Finally, comes the focus on the difference we are making for those we are trying to help, most of all for the children whose futures we decide, sometimes in a single decision. We will only get a clear picture with a range of perspectives: those of complainants, ward councillors, from collaborative audits and performance data. Then there is what the system locally understands about practice. Everyone has to ask: how much, how well and what difference am I making?
Leaders and managers across all disciplines have to ask the same questions and be close enough to know the answers. We call this ‘intimacy in practice’. Others call it ‘knowing your onions’. When they are truly committed and interested in the answer, positive change will come and serving children and their families well will then become the most satisfying outcome for everyone, regardless of their role.