Haringey council explains how it is improving children’s services

Eleanor Brazil, brought in to help rebuild confidence in Haringey council following the Baby P scandal, reveals how seeing the full picture was key to instigating change.

When I arrived in mid-January last year as interim deputy director of children and families services at Haringey council, I found staff and managers alike who felt beleaguered and battered. The preceding two months had been inconceivable for those of us who had not been part of it. Taunted by members of the public and the press, social workers and their managers continued to try to provide a service to the most vulnerable children in the north London borough.

As with most local authorities, there were aspects of children’s social care, particularly the support for children in care, which were as good as any delivered anywhere in the country – but hidden in the midst of the negativity that prevailed.

On my third day, I was faced with a “walk out” by staff in the referral and assessment service. It was clear from talking to the staff that they were angry, demoralised and scared. I persuaded them to return to work, spent the next few hours sitting alongside them to understand the problems, and promised quick action to address them.

No one thing can possibly turn around a children’s social care service. It requires taking some risks, working with and gaining the help of other parts of the council and other agencies, seeking additional targeted support, and a clear and comprehensive improvement plan. Most of all it requires activity that will impact on the culture of the organisation. Without that, no change will be sustainable or real.

Under the leadership of the new director of children’s services, Peter Lewis, by the end of January we had a final draft of a detailed 280-page multi-agency action plan designed to address all the serious concerns identified by Ofsted in November 2008. The development of the plan was critical to building new trusting relationships across agencies, without which implementing the plan would have been impossible. It took six weeks of weekly meetings of senior officers from the council, the police, health and schools to develop the plan. In that time, positive working relationships were forged that became the basis of a new and strong partnership, which has been crucial in bringing about the significant improvements that we are now seeing.

The content of the plan was important too. It covered very detailed action to tackle the quality of practice, support to frontline staff, developing multi-agency working, dealing effectively with referrals and assessments, improving child protection systems, as well as broader strategic activity to establish the Children’s Trust, to review the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board, and to develop early intervention and prevention work to support vulnerable children. Its delivery was overseen by the most senior officers in the council, police and health.

The areas that needed to change quickly were primarily the basics of delivering a high-quality and safe front door into social care. Radical change was needed in the way referral and assessment was organised. Two teams dealt with initial assessments, and three teams with core assessments, with the result that families experienced very rapid changes in social workers.

Too often, initial assessments were poor, with little or no information, and then passed on to the core teams to do more work. Feedback from schools and health was very negative about the response they received. The staff group consisted of more than 50% agency staff, and the atmosphere in the office was frenetic, loud and disorganised. Social workers complained of long hours, high caseloads, and little or no supervision. No clear thresholds were in place, and there was a high level of distrust across agencies, which impacted negatively on the quality of the work.

In March, we set up a six-week pilot multi-agency team intended to deal more effectively with new referrals. It was easier for our colleagues in health and police to second staff for a limited period of time than to try to establish a new service, and they, plus help from our legal section, willingly agreed to support this development and give it a chance. We were fortunate that the London borough of Merton greatly assisted us with the loan of an experienced service manager to head up the new team. The biggest problem was trying to find social workers to help staff; this remained the single biggest ­difficulty. Gradually, we recruited more from ­agencies.

Two weeks before the pilot was due to start, the process of reorganising the service led to the discovery of a box of over 900 printed referrals. They dated back over a period of several months, some before my arrival. They had been seen by three team managers, who had made the decision that they required no further action. Yet when we went through them we decided that a small number – around 5% – were serious enough to warrant an assessment. The managers were suspended, and the work of the pilot changed from focusing on new referrals to helping us deal with this backlog, ensuring that the youngest and most vulnerable children were assessed and responded to first.

During these six weeks, we also completed the reorganisation of the service, to be known as First Response. The ­lessons from the pilot have been invaluable in developing the multi-agency work in First Response that will see a permanent, innovative service established from April this year.

I like doing jigsaws, and it seems to me that transforming a service is a bit like doing a complex jigsaw. You need to focus your energy on different parts of the problem, giving sustained attention to key parts of the puzzle at different times. If you don’t have access to the final picture, you may find it hard to understand how it all fits together. So it was with the transformation programme: at first, those who didn’t understand the full picture were sceptical about how all the different ­elements would come together.

We did not bring in an improvement team, as some authorities have done, but we did engage additional expertise and capacity from outside the council. One of the keys to our success is that we all came in with a clear message that this was to support, work alongside and develop existing managers and staff. A new post of assistant director safeguarding was established to provide more robust senior management. We were joined in May by Mark Gurrey – formerly deputy director of children’s service, safeguarding and social care at the London borough of Barnet, on an interim basis. When we recruited to the post permanently in September, the best candidate, Marion Wheeler, was internal.

I also commissioned a number of experienced children’s social care social workers and mana gers from agencies who came for different periods of time and assisted us with a range of tasks, such as providing supervision and support with social workers on complex cases, developing a comprehensive case audit tool, and reviewing the range of family support available.

Walking the floor

Senior managers spent time walking the floor talking to staff, setting up ­formal forums to meet staff, visiting team meetings, and running events for all staff. ­Initially, we were on the receiving end of a catalogue of woes and unhappiness. Now we see and hear a measurable difference in how people feel. And because frontline staff know us, they do tell us what they think.

We developed imaginative ways of communicating the messages to staff through posters, newsletters and workshops. Hopefully, all our staff will now remember key lessons, such as “A seen child is not a safe child”, “If you see it, hear it or believe it, act on it”, and “Assessment is not a one-off event, but an ongoing process.”

We established a safeguarding champions scheme, with Peter Lewis and his senior managers being allocated three children aged under three who were subject to child protection plans that we would “take an interest in”, by talking to the social worker and looking at the file. We set up a fortnightly multi-agency safeguarding panel to review those children on the edge of legal proceedings to share the risk and look at what other options there might be.

We also focused on recruitment, both nationally and internationally, and succeeded in appointing 17 social workers from the US – nine of who joined us last October, with the others due to come this month. We also paid attention to retention, and established development opportunities for staff and managers. The list goes on. Like a jigsaw, it is best viewed as a picture.

Ongoing challenges

Looking back over the past year, I can truly say that it has been extraordinary. We have begun the transformation of the service, and it is making a difference. Staff feel more confident, feedback from other agencies is positive and encouraging. The organisation is upbeat, positive and ready to face the ongoing challenges ahead. There is much more to do, but a real step change has been made and shows what is possible.

Most important of all, the children and young people in Haringey will continue to benefit from this change.

Eleanor Brazil is interim deputy director, children and families services, at the ­London borough of Haringey. This article is an edited extract from a document written by her as part of the process to recruit her ­permanent successor.