The COVID-19 pandemic has raised numerous challenges and issues for local authorities and social care providers, but no matter how difficult these may be, there is still the fundamental need to provide help to those who need it most.
While it may consume all of the oxygen from the news agenda – to the point where it appears there is no such thing as ‘business as usual’ – children still need to be fostered or adopted, and families may need help getting appropriate support to escape homelessness or domestic abuse.
On top of dealing with COVID-19, Birmingham Children’s Trust are also responsible for continuing with business as usual, offering a wealth of services to the broader community. In addition to these in-depth considerations, they have also been going through enormous changes in working practices. All of these changes gathered speed following the appointment of former Senior Her Majesty’s Ofsted Inspector Jenny Turnross as Director of Practice in 2018.
Turnross was part of the Ofsted team which inspected Birmingham in September 2016, finding the authority to be ‘Inadequate’. Key findings from the report included:
- Not enough was being done to keep children and young people safe from harm
- Children did not receive enough help at an early enough stage
- Partnership working with other services were not well embedded
- Children who have disabilities, and who need help and protection were not seen enough by their social workers.
Since then, the Trust has been inspected and subject to an Ofsted Focused Visit. The common theme has been that they continue to make improvements, striving towards a ‘Good’ rating. To drive this desired change, Turnross can lean on her experience gained on the other side of the fence to help address the underlying issues.
“I completely understood what was wrong when it came to the infrastructure and the comms,” she says, “…the staff, they needed someone to have their back and not to be blamed professionally too much. You’ve got to win the hearts and minds of your workforce.”
This battle for the hearts and minds of the workforce has manifested itself in many ways, not least of all the fact that, over the last 12 months, they were supplied with new laptops and mobiles. This has allowed them to work effectively in the field. This new kit was supported by the implementation of ECLIPSE, a dedicated software platform built to support the next generation social work, and provided by OLM Systems.
The national lockdown meant that staff were forced to work remotely. This decision was not without its challenges but has resulted in empowering social workers and enabling them to deliver something more than business than usual.
By getting ahead of the curve and road testing the equipment before the national lockdown, Birmingham were able to transition to the new normal with few difficulties.
“We’re pretty forward-thinking in terms of seeing emerging issues,” says Turnross. “Back in February, we could see what was happening in terms of the pandemic. We could see that it was winging its way over to the UK. We were fortunate because at that point we felt that ECLIPSE was bedding in, and it meant that in late February, we could start thinking about something that we’ve never thought about before: what would happen if we closed our offices and we sent everybody home to work remotely?”
“So, at the beginning of March, before the lockdown, we tested the ability to be able to put our front door of children’s services, known as the CASS (children’s advice and support services) and our MASH (Multi-agency Safeguarding Hub) – which holds 185 staff usually – in one big expanse of one floor.
“We deployed 50% of those to home working for a week, and we closely tracked our performance – and could see within that first week that we could maintain services. So, by the second week, we got the whole of the partnership working from home. And what we’ve seen is that, even now, when we’re talking about potentially reopening offices, we just don’t have that need for all services.”
There are still some challenges to remote working – including the opportunity to have those watercooler conversations says Turnross – but the ability for staff to use chat and messaging functions means they can still interact. Unscheduled conversations, even via chat programmes, maintain a sense of spontaneity to the working day.
Work at senior level has also helped shape changes to working practices, including daily conference calls between the Chief Executive, directors and heads of service. All of which has helped track the outbreak, welfare and wellbeing of the Trust’s staff and the young people in its care.
The Trust has also made a similar improvement in how it uses data relating to school-age children, now being able to deliver almost real-time information regarding schooling and social work visits. In the past, the Trust was criticised for the quality of its data relating to school children. Yet, in the middle of the pandemic, they’ve been able to understand
how the changes to life and education have affected young people. Such improvements mean they are now able to meet the ambitious Department for Education targets in the process.
“This was only possible thanks to the relationship between ECLIPSE and Microsoft’s Power BI – as well as the desire of OLM staff to move at speed,” says Turnross.
As ECLIPSE and Power BI work seamlessly together, it means Birmingham Children’s Trust can extract real value from the data, allowing them to understand what is happening across the service and in their young people’s lives.
“I needed to be able to help social workers to record the nature of their visit – was it remote, over the telephone, or a physical visit. We need to be able to count that information and understand what our visiting looks like.”
The ability to configure ECLIPSE meant Birmingham’s Children’s Trust could reflect these requests in the system and create reports in Power BI to highlight the trends. It also meant they could adapt at pace, test approaches and use that data to inform the levels of success against their objectives. For Turnross, such usability meant having a greater understanding of the data they held on their young people.
“From week one, we were able to give detailed information to the DfE and Ofsted on what our arrangements look like when seeing children, and we’ve done the same in respect of school attendance. During the initial COVID wave, there was a real push by the government for information on vulnerable children in education, and within a week, we were able to record every child’s data.
“We could say, within 24 hours, who was shielding or who we were worried about. As a result of that we set up a joint response group involving police, health, social workers, family support workers, education, and they still meet now weekly, and they drill down on individual children.”
This example also goes some way to emphasise the strides made forward when it comes to partnership working in the city too. Indeed, this was another area where Birmingham was previously found wanting, meaning the pandemic has helped to “short circuit” the system. It has meant that, with the right drive and leadership, if they’ve needed to make something happen with partners, this has been able to happen. Multiple, unnecessary meetings have been avoided, eliminating unnecessary red tape.
For example, this has meant there has been a rapid response to those who are homeless, with the Trust working in tandem with colleagues in Housing. They have been able to address the issue and work with families at risk throughout the city, placing workers in different areas to work locally, rather than in a central office, or with the police when tackling domestic abuse and looking to remove perpetrators, rather than families.
The next step would be for the Trust to look to provide more integrated data recording between the partners concerning the children and young people they work with. This is something that Turnross said would have been unthinkable six months ago.
The Trust also has significant ambitions in using ECLIPSE to bring together different organisations. Such multi-agency working is something which could be enabled with relative ease through ECLIPSE, where the front of the service could be extended to partners, ending the practice of recording data in silos. There is also the hope of joining up text message conversations with the case recording system, reducing the administrative burden on social workers, and adapting the service to technology children are comfortable using.
Furthermore, such an acknowledgement may be symbolic for the Trust, but it emphasises how the pandemic has encouraged closer partnership working across the city.
Indeed, set against the challenges of the past ten years, it’s not hard for Turnross to point to some successes and easy wins achieved over the past seven months, which serve as important steps forward for the partnership working arrangements in the city. It’s something Turnross describes as going “beyond business as usual”.
“We brought together all the multi-agency partners across the Children’s Partnership, and every single Monday for two hours, I chair, what has affectionately become known as the POG – the Partnership Operational Group. We’ve never had that before in Birmingham. If you know the story of Birmingham, you’ll know the challenges around mobilising the partnership. That really has been our Achilles’ heel in a very, very complex set of circumstances.
“And this meeting endured, so we’ve landed a domestic abuse response, we have agreed a Making Every Contact Counts response, a Homelessness response, we’ve settled an early help COVID response. There have been over 7,400 families through the pandemic who were not open to the Trust, so we’ve kept them very much on a prevention arm. We secured the funding to deliver a new Early Help offer which is a great step forward for the city.“We are now starting discussions around opening ECLIPSE up across partners. I don’t think, six months ago, we could have been in that space. We’re now in a position where trust and resilience is being built across the partnership, and that’s better for children.”
This resilience could be crucial to the future success of the Trust. Their work during the pandemic has proved they can move at speed and be adaptable to meet the challenges of an unpredictable public health crisis. This idea of short-circuiting the system even applies to internal protocols, removing bureaucracy and giving people the courage to make decisions and drive change for the better. Unsurprisingly, Turnross sees it as part of her responsibility to help build this confidence back up after a decade of knocks, encouraging professional risk-taking in her staff.
“I think, in Birmingham, because of the past years of inadequate practice, staff felt deskilled, under confident and battered. I think a huge message that Andy [Couldrick – Chief Executive] and I give out, every week, is ‘We’ve got your back’. We want our staff to be decision-makers because we want them to use their professional judgment. We want them to feel that they can have a level of autonomy that means they can practice safely, we want them to be persistent, and we want them not to give up.”
Now, says Turnross, the challenge should be to get the Ofsted rating to the next level to show real progress. Such a rating would be a tremendous boost for the Trust, and evidence of the journey it has gone through over the past four years.
“The prize for any local authority, in any partnership, is that we’re doing absolutely the best for children and families. That’s the bottom line,” says Turnross. “I would like to say that when Ofsted next comes to visit us, that we’re flirting with ‘Good’, in terms of our judgment. Birmingham has been inadequate for over ten years, has been subject to high levels of scrutiny and intervention from the DfE and Ofsted, and everybody else who has a seat at the big desk. What we need to demonstrate now is that we’re all on the same journey together as a partnership."
*Article originally appeared in Leadership Issues in Social Care. Leadership Issues in Social Care journal presents the best in thought-leadership and opinion, helping to shape future practice and share learning. The journal focuses on the implications of new legislation, emerging technology, case studies of best practice and more.
It is provided free of charge to Directors of Social Care in the UK and a subscription can be purchased here; https://www.pavpub.com/health-and-social-care/leadership-issues-in-social-care