We were invited into this particular local authority by the children’s commissioner after a series of inadequate Ofsted inspections, to work alongside first and second line managers to improve social work and management practice. We worked with the City Director and the DCS to implement a rapid improvement programme based on an innovative methodology.

This programme was very successful in improving the fundamentals of social work and management practice in key areas of work such as assessments, planning for children, staff supervision and the pace and purposefulness of work. It has also enabled colleagues to specifically focus on what can be changed and how to ensure that changes made are owned by managers and professional staff and are therefore sustainable over time.

The qualitative part of the programme focused on the basics of practice within teams. The ‘six vital signs’ of practice used were as follows. These could be modified or tailored to the needs of any other LA as necessary:

  1. The Quality of Child and Family Assessments
  2. The Quality of Child Protection Enquiries
  3. The Quality of Child in Need (CiN) Plans
  4. The Quality of Child Protection Plans
  5. The Quality of Visits to Children and Young People
  6. The Quality of Staff Supervision

Two examples of the six quality criteria used (for a Child and Family Assessment and for Staff Supervision) were as follows:

An Assessment should be judged good if it contains a clear account of seeing and/or observing the child (including the child’s views about the issue in hand if of sufficient age and understanding), an evaluation of parenting capacity, well integrated and attributed multi-agency information, and an analysis of the situation based on clear professional opinion. An Assessment which requires improvement shows evidence of seeing and/or observing the child and good practice in two of the remaining three areas. An Assessment which is inadequate has fallen below this standard.

Staff supervision recording should be judged good if it evidences that supervision is being carried out at the necessary frequency, contains an update on progress against previous decisions made, is clearly considering the progress of the child’s plan, makes reference to reflective elements of discussion, contain evidence of challenge (where necessary) and records decisions made during the supervision discussion. Supervision recording which requires improvement shows evidence of at least 4 of the 6 elements set out above, but is deficient in other areas, e.g. low frequency of supervision or lack of clarity in decision making. Supervision recording which is inadequate is unfocused, contains little evidence of clear management of the case and may also be lacking in other areas.

The next stage was to have separate discussions with the team and team manager to evaluate morale and understand how the team functioned as a whole. We then looked at performance data on a focused range of indicators. These related to the timeliness and completion of assessments and child protection enquiries, the timeliness of visits to children, the frequency of child in need reviews and finally the occurrence and frequency of case supervision. A summary was produced at each stage with clear and specific guidance as to how practice could be rapidly improved in each of the six areas.

Summary of Improvements

A serious problem in this LA was that deficient performance was built into the system – specifically the previous electronic exemplars used for recording practice relating to (e.g.) assessments and children’s plans. These had seriously distorted professional practice in a number of ways. Use of these recording formats meant that it had been hitherto very difficult for social workers to articulate their practice in a clear and coherent fashion.

Over time, this had inevitably led to increasingly poor practice per se and, very worryingly, a sense of increasing disorientation amongst social workers and managers as to what good practice actually looked like. This was a very serious issue which had directly and adversely affected the quality of service provided to children and their families.

Therefore, the speedy substitution of much simpler formats for recording day-to-day practice in the early stages of the programme was a very important step which greatly assisted the process of improvement in this LA. It did this in two principal ways, firstly by simplifying recording formats and making them both more logical and easier to use and secondly, by demonstrating the determination of senior managers to act quickly to remove a major roadblock to progress. This example also shows how an improvement programme of this nature can trigger further and vitally necessary improvements in related areas.

Continual feedback, mentoring conversations and a recorded webinar on best practice in assessment and care planning also helped to foster a common and shared understanding amongst managers and staff of ‘what good looks like’ in the various areas. Team managers used the improvement team well, often making contact ‘in the moment’ to discuss (e.g.) how a child’s plan or assessment could be improved prior to authorisation.

Conclusion and Further Areas for Improvement

There can be no doubt that this programme had a major and very positive impact on practice in the LA in this example. The programme used a specific and clear methodology, as set out above, and was additionally sponsored and driven forward by senior managers. Both of these factors, alongside the introduction of simplified formats for recording practice, created a sense of focus, impetus and urgency missing from many improvement initiatives.

The most important gains included a much clearer sense of what the rudiments of good practice are in the 6 areas of focus and the consequent likely impact on children and their families. For example, to change the focus of a CiN plan from the vague and imprecise ‘appropriate monitoring and support’ to a coherent set of desired outcomes such as ‘Sharon is living in a home free from domestic violence’ with specific actions, people responsible and timescales set out to achieve such outcomes takes practice forward in an immediate and tangible way which has a far better chance of improving the lives of children.

The vitally important question is always – how can such progress be continued and over time, become embedded, sustained and firmly rooted within social work practice? Rapid improvement is one thing and creating a resilient, durable and dominant culture of best practice another. There is always a real danger of a quick return to past deficient models of practice and behaviour if improvement has shallow or insecure roots.

To begin to answer this question in relation to the example used, it is of great significance that managers and practitioners now have a better set of tools to ‘do the job’ in the form of a shared understanding of the basics of good practice and the wherewithal to record practice more clearly and coherently. It was additionally of great importance that this programme of improvement has been closely aligned with key professional values such as the centrality of children and the validation of effective, good quality and reflexive practice.

Senior managers were rightly clear that, as the programme ended, that the task was to transfer the responsibility for continued improvement to managers at all levels. This should always be the case. Team and service managers are particularly important in the creation of a ‘business as usual’ culture within teams where shared definitions of good practice and high standards of performance become the norm. It is also important that external scrutiny and triangulation of improvement should continue, but this should move into the background to provide (for example) further mentoring support and periodic fuller reviews to ensure that the trajectory of progress is maintained.