The architects of Cornwall children’s services’ journey from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ have said the county’s social work model is robust and can continue to progress, as they prepare to leave their roles.
Almost exactly eight years on from the last time they judged Cornwall ‘inadequate’, Ofsted inspectors this week awarded the county the highest possible grade overall, with services for children in care, and the impact of leaders both scoring top marks.
At its last full inspection, in 2016, the council achieved a ‘good’ rating, cementing a turnaround based on nurturing an environment where social workers have had time and space to do their jobs and to learn and develop.
But in its latest visit – one of the inspectorate’s new short inspections, carried out in October – Ofsted found Cornwall had continued to innovate in a number of areas. These included its implementation of a multi-agency edge-of-care service for adolescents, the integration of clinicians into teams and a “significantly improved” focus on participation from children in care.
Three critical factors
For Trevor Doughty, the director of children’s services, and Jack Cordery, the head of service for children’s social care – both of whom are moving on in December – Ofsted’s verdict marks the culmination of almost a decade’s work. “[Senior leaders] have worked purposefully since the last inspection and have continued to strengthen services for children and young people – they are passionate about raising standards and strive for excellence,” inspectors noted.
“We have developed, over many years, a grow-your-own system – our social workers know the model, which is based on social justice, and are steeped in it – and it works here,” says Doughty, who is leaving to take up a post at the Local Government Association (LGA). “There were many pleasing things in the report, but one was the morale of social workers and the commitment of the workforce on a day-to-day basis – and that has obviously to be coupled with commitment from partners and the corporate and political setup.”
Unlike many of its neighbours in the South West, Cornwall has a stable social work workforce, many members of whom have risen through the ranks, with only just above 3% agency staff. It has managed to keep its numbers of children entering care down – to a little above 40 per 10,000, against national averages of 60 or more – despite high levels of deprivation.
Cordery puts its achievements down to the enduring influence of Eileen Munro’s 2011 review of child protection, to which he contributed, in implementing a “virtuous triangle” that underpins social work practice in Cornwall.
“There are three factors,” he says. “First, that we shifted our culture from a process-driven bureaucracy to relationship-based social work.
“Second, we have a core [development] curriculum, not just for social workers but for all practitioners [who work with children within the local safeguarding partnership],” Cordery adds (see box). The council also offers a career and qualification pathway that means all social workers can progress to a consultant grade equivalent to a frontline manager.
Finally, Cordery says, “evidence-based, trauma-informed approaches we are taking have had a massive impact.”
As with the bi-borough councils of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, which were also recently judged ‘outstanding’, a key development of those practice approaches has been the insertion of therapeutic staff into social care teams.
While Cornwall children’s services’ two most senior leaders are leaving, the council’s principal children’s and families’ social worker, Marion Russell, who has been in post since 2011, will provide crucial continuity.
Russell has responsibility for policy and quality assurance, among a growing range of duties as children’s social care in Cornwall pursues greater integration with health services. She heads up the team that delivers the core training curriculum within children’s services, which includes learning around supervision, motivational interviewing and Signs of Safety and can also be accessed by other agencies in Cornwall.
“We have always taken view that if you are professional working with children you can do our training – all of it,” Russell says.
“That has made a big difference, in terms of [wider] culture change, challenging ways of thinking, doing things differently. It has a knock-on effect – when have case conferences, child in need meetings and so on, everyone is coming with same knowledge and skills, and speaking the same language.”
Commenting on this week’s Ofsted report, Russell adds that what pleased her most was that fact that the council’s learning culture “shone through” many practice elements rather than being an add-on consideration.
“Inspectors didn’t have to come to talk to me, or to practice educators, or people who run the core curriculum, because everyone talked about training, the career and qualification pathway, progression, the use of research, models of practice – and in practice [Ofsted] saw that,” she says. “It wasn’t a separate thing but embedded and for me that is the difference, what I see as mainstreaming of what we do.”
The creation of an edge-of-care service providing individualised support packages to the families of adolescents, Gweres tus Yowynk, was singled out by Ofsted as an example of this.
“It fits with our approach about social justice and pro-social learning,” says Cordery. “To have an edge-of-care team doing intensive therapeutic work with families around how they function, relationships within them, breakdowns between parents and adolescents – that has been a phenomenal success.”
The service brings together social workers, psychologists, family workers, junior youth workers and functional family therapy child welfare practitioners. Based on its results, Cornwall has now invested in three new similarly constituted teams designed to work with younger children on the edge of care, which will begin work shortly.
“[The model for the new teams] is related to functional family therapy (FFT), but called functional family therapy child welfare, which is an adapted approach for working with five- to 10-year-olds,” says Cordery.
But while the teams are new, the multi-disciplinary approach is well-established. As Ofsted noted, psychologists are now employed throughout children’s services in Cornwall, providing advice to social workers as well as to parents and carers.
“When you have a psychologist’s perspective in assessment of children’s needs, you then start thinking, ‘what’s the right treatment or approach to help them recover?’” Cordery says. “We have invested in FFT, theraplay, video interaction guidance – a whole range of therapeutic approaches, which are embedded in our social care teams.”
Amplifying young people’s voices
Besides Cornwall’s multi-disciplinary approach to delivering children’s social care, Ofsted commended the council for continually improving participation from care-experienced young people, which is led by a partner organisation, Carefree.
“Highly committed care-experienced apprentices undertake group work with children in care,” the inspection report said. “They deliver training to social workers and foster carers, as well as representing the local authority at national benchmarking events.”
Cordery cites several examples of how young people’s voices have had a direct impact on practice and policy. These include exploring how to support young people around reconnecting with their families in more “managed” ways, to investing in counselling services all care-experienced individuals can access in order to deal with ongoing emotional issues.
“Carefree has created a participation programme that is virtually led by young people themselves – we’ve got not just apprentices in that organisation, but employed care leavers, and they have come and applied to us to be social workers as well,” Cordery adds.
Ofsted also noted that young people’s perspectives had been amplified via the work of independent reviewing officers – a role that has come under national scrutiny in recent times. In Cornwall the job is fulfilled by so-called children’s rights advocates, who also handle child protection conference chairing duties.
“In many local authorities these are very transactional roles – facilitating and meeting, getting people together, reviewing and adjusting plans and the goodbye,” says Cordery. “We feel they are well placed to do so much more… I have given them permission to be advocates for young people.”
‘Meeting demand won’t be straightforward’
Yet despite noting improvements in all departments, Ofsted’s inspection of services in Cornwall identified a number of areas where further progress could be made, with services for children in need of help and protection rated ‘good’. Most notably, inspectors said the consistency of plans – especially for children in need – could be better, as could life-story work and accommodation provision for 16- and 17-year-olds.
While inspectors said Cornwall had significantly improved its responses to children at risk of exploitation, Cordery adds that the county will also “need to get tighter” on its understanding of child criminal exploitation relating to county lines drug dealing.
Unlike for most children’s services that obtain an ‘outstanding’ judgment, the road ahead, through the difficult landscape all children’s services face, will be travelled under new leadership.
Cordery warned in council meetings last year that any cuts to budgets could undermine the directorate’s progress – and Doughty acknowledges that Cornwall must make “maximum use” of the social care grant announced in the recent spending round in order to stay on track. Recent documents suggest the council could be in line for an extra £11m, from the £1bn announced nationally.
“I’m not pretending that meeting demand is going to be straightforward – the effectiveness of early help will be crucial in order to reduce acute costs and have fewer children in care,” he says. But Doughty, who has just begun handing over to his successor, Meredith Teasdale, recently of Wolverhampton council, adds that he is “confident of the potential for services to get even better”.
While there have also been reports of tensions between the outgoing children’s services bosses and Cornwall chief executive Kate Kennally, Cordery says the new younger children’s edge-of-care teams are a sign the council has been persuaded to keep investing in a system that is built on solid foundations.
“They recognise failure is awful for children and young people, and also political suicide,” he says. “[But] our culture – the building blocks of putting children at the centre of things, with a skilled workforce, with strong values about how we work with children and families – that will be hard to unravel.”