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In 2013, Ofsted reported the London Borough of Hillingdon Children’s Services as ‘requiring improvement’. Tony Zaman, Corporate Director of Adults and Children and Young People Services, shares his experience implementing a major service improvement strategy.

Could you tell us about your approach?

Having accepted the role of Corporate Director of Adult, Children and Young People Services, nine months following the inspection, I quickly realised that we needed to not concentrate on chasing a plan, but on improving the service. The plan would then take care of itself. We stood back and recast how we were going to improve performance and outcomes and address the major challenge of attracting and retaining high-calibre staff.

One of the first things we did was to manage the perception of the service; to deal with short-term capacity issues and give us head-room to plan ahead, was to freeze recruitment and temporarily increase our reliance on agency staff and managed service resources. This approach reduced the turnover of permanent and agency staff and created much more continuity and stability.

Essentially, our approach was a 'back to basics' one: getting the right operating model, case flows and leadership team in place, recasting the career pathway for social workers, supporting staff and backing decision making at the front line.

How important was Council administration support?

It was vital. Both at a political and corporate level, the service and I, have been supported all the way. As you would expect from Hillingdon Council, all key decisions and changes were backed with strong financial service improvement business cases, providing the support we needed to make the necessary changes in an enduring way.

How did you change the front door?

The 'Children's Pathway' was already in place. It is broadly based on the principle of one social worker seeing a case through from initial referral through to the final outcome for that child. What was evident is that whilst the principle as an aspiration is right, it is only effective if tempered by the realities of strong practitioner and case-flow management, with good planning being well managed, by the right highly skilled workers at key case progression stages. This wasn't the case at the time and cases were getting stuck in the system, or drifting. 

They quickly mobilised several teams of highly experienced social work practitioners to take control of our front door. This freed us up to concentrate on progressing cases already in the system that were on Child in Need (CIN) or protection plans. It also gave us the headroom to focus on stabilising the rest of the service.

What was the impact on staffing?


We were able to redefine our career pathway to offer progression based on ability and achievement rather than length of service or drawn-out processes. We revisited our pay and rebranded the service to show we had real vision and a sense of direction. With the expert help of Sanctuary Social Care, we then launched a major recruitment campaign. Within 12 to 15 months we had moved from 80 percent agency staff and 20 percent permanent staff to the exact opposite: 80 percent permanent staff and 20 percent agency staff. The strategy of utilising agency staff and the managed service whilst we were stabilising and planning, rather than lurching into a knee jerk response, was a tremendous success.

As we were recruiting, the average tenure of our agency staff was above 40 weeks, a number of whom later became permanent members of staff and a number of practitioners who had left have come back to rejoin us.

Is there one key thing that really made a difference?


I'd have to say two, with a couple qualifying points. The political and corporate support the service received must be close to unparalleled. As well as the power that trust and financial backing can achieve, the support for our various support functions has been stunning.  By May 2016, we had a permanent senior management and management team in place, right through to team managers, which is very rare these days. Having that strong, stable, supportive leadership and management through the structure is a tremendous asset.

Have you measured the progress?


Very much so. Without boring you with the whole suite of specifics, we know what we have, where they are, what we need to do and how we can improve outcomes. 

Our routine Ofsted business meetings are going well and in November to December 2016 we had an extremely positive Joint Targeted Area Inspection of our SEND service by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, parts of which shone a light on the end-to-end strength of children and young people services in the borough.

So, what's next?


Drawing on the experience of all those improvement dimensions mentioned above, we are reworking our pathway and operating model. It isn't far off and the key changes will be around the greater integration of much earlier focused intervention.

We're also gathering those services together under the same management structure, so that we can control them more effectively and target de-escalation from the point of contact and step-down cases from plans more quickly and safely. Having got the basics right, we're now focusing on seriously improving outcomes for children, young people and families.

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