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Rotherham: How we turned around failing children's services

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After significant failure, a methodical approach, leadership and partnerships overhauled Rotherham’s inadequate service.

  • Project: Improving our children’s services
  • Objectives: To rebuild Rotherham’s children’s services to better protect the town’s children and young people and support those affected by past failures
  • Timescale: 2014-18
  • Cost to authority: £24m
  • Number of staff working on project: 7,119
  • Outcomes: Through clear leadership, a strong workforce committed to change and by ensuring effective governance and scrutiny were in place, the service was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted earlier this year. This was followed by the council receiving full democratic control six months earlier than planned
  • Officer contact details: Sharon Kemp

Rotherham’s improvement of children’s services comes from a context of well publicised and significant failure.

Alexis Jay’s report in August 2014 said the council and its partners had failed more than 1,400 victims of child sexual exploitation over 14 years – a stark reminder how bad things can get, and the responsibility we have to the most vulnerable.

Closely following Professor Jay’s findings, the 2014 Ofsted report on the state of our children’s services found them to be inadequate. And in February 2015 Dame Louise Casey’s report deemed the council unable to run itself. The government appointed commissioners.

These are all humbling reminders of what can happen without good governance, scrutiny and delivery.

They also remind us just what an important job we must do as council officers to protect those who most need us. Though we were rated ‘good’ by Ofsted in January this year, we are not in any way complacent and never will be, given our history.

None of us can forget what happened.

There are some key stages to our improvement many of you will recognise. I make no apology for this, as it is worth reminding ourselves of home truths as well as some less common actions.

Our overall approach was methodical. For anyone improving children’s services, I would recommend the Isos and Local Government Association report Enabling Improvement: research into the role and models of external improvement support for local children’s services.

This describes laying the foundations through data, analysis and engagement, before creating compliance and imposing a relentless focus on improvement. It is a must-read for anyone engaged in children’s improvement, mirroring our own experience.

Clear and visible leadership is critical for both politicians and officers. Among the most important work was moving from denial to acceptance, and absolutely committing to change. This included the appointment of a new leader, Chris Read (Lab), and a new senior leadership team.

Clear and constructive relationships were vital. Ian Thomas joined as director of children’s services in 2015, setting standards for effective engagement in children’s services and collaborating with the Department for Education-appointed commissioner Malcolm Newsam and cabinet member Gordon Watson (Lab).

These constructive relationships continued with the change in commissioner to councillor Patricia Bradwell (Con) of Lincolnshire CC, and through the peer practice partnership with Debbie Barnes, director of Lincolnshire’s children’s services.

Effective governance was not in place and needed to be. We therefore overhauled governance groups, ensuring clear purpose, giving support and training for the differing roles, and taking learning from other areas.

These included our corporate parenting panel, the improvement board and improving lives scrutiny select commission. We also set up our children and young people’s partnership.

Members of the Looked After Children’s Council celebrating their Diana Award

When improving services it is essential you are clear who is doing what and why to drive change through the governance and delivery structures. This provides essential checks and balances.

Ensuring effective scrutiny through our select commission was likewise critical to providing evidence of change, being transparent in how we were addressing challenges, and facilitating constructive challenge to hasten improvement.

It was also hugely beneficial to have the benefit of Ms Barnes and Lincolnshire CC as our peer practice partners. We embraced their support and challenge and it helped us move forward quickly, with Ms Barnes and her heads of service working alongside us to embed change.

Equally important were the numerous peer reviews undertaken as a council, and the Ofsted monitoring visits. We had to see these as opportunities to show progress and check ourselves. Credit should go to our staff for embracing these reviews and using their findings to change our council for the better. We aimed to develop a ‘one council’ approach through the seven tests set by commissioners.

These included having a well-functioning corporate service, a stable and capable leadership, continued improvement in the quality and effectiveness of practice, strong and supportive partnerships, robust financial management, a compelling strategy for the workforce, and effective performance information and quality assurance.

This was coupled with our ‘child-centred borough’ approach, working with other services and organisations on how we collaborate to make Rotherham a safe, positive place. Every member of the strategic leadership team led on one of the commissioner tests so we all had personal responsibility for an area of improvement.

A key element of failure is that it costs to put things right. We had to invest money quickly into children’s services, amounting to £24m. This investment has been subject to regular scrutiny to ensure it is having the expected impact.

Do not underestimate the other impact of support from friendly peers, which helps you lead improvement and get through the dark days. We have received it from across the local government family – from the Local Government Association, individual councils, and the Centre for Public Scrutiny to name just a few. Their help has been invaluable, and we are grateful.

Being able to celebrate the smaller improvements within a safe space helped us in the early days. To know that people were rooting for us to succeed was a comfort.

It also taught me an important lesson: we must take heart from the small daily gains to build and consolidate.

It can feel a long time before some of the bigger improvements materialise. No matter how much we improve in the here and now, we cannot go back and undo the damage of previous failure.

So whilst we celebrate that our children and young people receive good services, we will never forget and will continue to make more improvements, firm in the belief we will never let people down like this again.

Our focus now is preparing for a peer review – at our request – by our previous peer practice partner Ms Barnes and her team from Lincolnshire, checking on our progress against the Ofsted recommendations.

Coupled with this we are developing a sustainable budget for children and young people’s services for the long term. We continue with our improvements knowing this is how we now work.

Sharon Kemp, chief executive, Rotherham MBC

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