In 2013, Hampshire CC faced a major dilemma.
We were asked by the Department for Education, the Local Government Association and Isle of Wight Council to take over the island’s failing children’s services.
Why such a dilemma? We were, of course, quietly flattered to be asked and knew this was an exciting and ground-breaking opportunity. This had never been done before. But we also knew it was a significant risk to the county council. There was a risk of failure on a grand scale, precisely because it had never been done before, and that failure could stretch into Hampshire’s own services, which we had built up so carefully and successfully over years. We could end up badly letting down their children and ours.
We took the challenge and were determined from the start we would continue to maintain our high standards in Hampshire while supporting children’s services on the island on its journey to improve its practice and better protect vulnerable children and young people, not forgetting supporting school under-performance.
Now, in our fourth year of the strategic partnership, it is encouraging to look back and see what Isle of Wight Council has achieved, with our support. It has made significant progress and continues to do so. Much of this is down to the Isle of Wight Council’s commitment to improve, which was backed politically by its cabinet, and the dedication and hard work of the island’s children’s services staff. Their willingness to work with us and to embrace changes in procedures and practice has been key.
Summer 2013: the beginning
Following an inspection in November 2012, Ofsted concluded in its report (published January 2013) that the Isle of Wight’s child protection services were ‘inadequate’. Ofsted had also inspected the council’s school improvement function as a response to poor standards of attainment and high numbers of inadequate schools on the island. That inspection found arrangements at that time were ‘ineffective’.
As a result, the education secretary issued a statutory direction for Isle of Wight Council to enter a strategic partnership with Hampshire CC. In fairness, Isle of Wight Council and the Sector-Led Improvement Agency had both also approached Hampshire with the same idea so the direction became a confirmation of a shared intent.
Once the terms of the partnership were agreed by both Hampshire and Isle of Wight, Hampshire took charge in leading all children’s services’ functions (children’s social care and education) at Isle of Wight, in the summer of 2013.
Our task from the outset was clear: to support the children’s services department at Isle of Wight to strengthen its child protection and education services on the Island.
What have we done?
The first and most crucial task was to undertake a thorough and probing examination of Isle of Wight’s children’s services operation and to identify weaknesses, gaps and emerging issues.
It was important at this stage to listen to the views of staff and attune ourselves to the existing working culture in order to analyse how we could improve matters. It was also important to understand the story of why things had got so bad and why people thought ‘it’s different here’.
At this point we were able to put in place basic performance and quality assurance processes. For example, we began to monitor caseloads properly and ensure that assessments were completed in a timely way. We were able to bring in simple but effective processes that ensured that all staff were able to recognise who was able to make a decision about what and what decisions needed to be referred to a senior manager.
Subsequently, we were able to decide exactly what needed to be changed, in terms of systems, processes and staff structures. It was very noticeable that very few permanent staff left the organisation as they adapted to new and clearer ways of working.
Communication, engagement and a collective sense of ownership with staff and our partners were absolutely critical to successful progress. It was vital for our staff and partners to have confidence in what we were doing and why we were doing it. The then chair of the Improvement Board, Professor Ray Jones, played a critical role in this.
We were then able to work with the children’s services managers on the island to draw up an ambitious but achievable detailed action plan for improvement.
In addition to the director for children’s services, key senior leaders from Hampshire were seconded to the Island, to support the implementation of the action plan from, and within, Isle of Wight Council and oversee the journey of improvement.
Interestingly, this became a benefit to Hampshire as well, as some high quality managers, who may otherwise have looked elsewhere for opportunities, sought out new challenges on the island while able to stay within Hampshire’s employ.
What issues did we encounter?
In the early stages there was some scepticism towards the partnership from a variety of sources. Over time that has diminished, and our partnership has become the new normal. Our ambition was to make the partnership so solid that neither party would want to break it up and start again.
As we move towards renewing the partnership in 2018, without the direction, it appears that we are on the way to achieving that ambition.
That is not to say the partnership has not been without its challenges and we would be the first to say that there is plenty more to do. We share the ambition with Isle of Wight Council that we want services to be ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, and for all schools on the island to be ‘good’. While these are challenging targets, it speaks volumes that these ambitions now feel within reach.
Have we delivered?
Within the space of 15 months from the partnership beginning, children’s services at Isle of Wight Council had made sufficient progress to reach the point where they were no longer rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
Within the same timeframe, arrangements for school improvement were re-inspected and, by then, enough improvement had taken place for Ofsted to conclude the partnership arrangements were proving effective.
A significant number of senior managers now have added Isle of Wight responsibilities but this provides a good deal for Hampshire (as it reduces the costs of those managers) and a good deal for the Isle of Wight as it means that they are able to share some management costs with a larger authority. A recent estimate has been that the partnership has saved the Isle of Wight Council more than £2m whilst improving services.
Since then we have continued to work at pace to further drive up standards to reach our ambition of being ‘good’. It is a long hard road and, as the recent Ipsos MORI research noted, using Isle of Wight as a practice example, the incremental work required to move the services from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’, is the hardest graft of all but we won’t be satisfied until we get there.
In my view, our experience with the Isle of Wight Council, with professional peer to professional peer support via the partnership agreement, is an enormously effective, and positive, means to improve services.
It’s a view that has been echoed by the former cabinet member for children’s services on the island, Chris Whitehouse. He has stated publicly that “the partnership has initiated a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way the council hopes to provide services.” He also said Isle of Wight Council is “going to be looking at how we deliver this level of good practice across all our services. We need good quality officers but we cannot afford to buy all of them ourselves.”
He and I agree that “Hampshire has the scale, capacity and magnitude to be able to deploy expertise which, as a small authority, the Isle of Wight has not been able to do.”
Steve Crocker, director of children’s services, Hampshire CC & Isle of Wight Council