Achieving the remarkable

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2019


PSE sat down with the esteemed Debbie Jones, the director of children’s services at Tower Hamlets Council, to discuss how she led the jump from an ‘Inadequate’ Ofsted rating to a ‘remarkable’ ‘Good’ rating.

“We were in February 2017 when the inspectors came. We’d already had the Government commissioners with the council for nearly two years by then, and the wisdom at the time was that whilst everything was going wrong at the council, we didn’t have to worry about children’s services. They’d been found to be ‘Good’ with ‘Outstanding’ features by Ofsted by 2012, and the services still had the same management team so everything was rosy."

Debbie described a council preoccupied with a previous scandal. In 2015, the first directly elected mayor, Luftur Rahman, was found guilty of electoral fraud and removed from office with immediate effect. When Jones joined the council, it was under the leadership of John Biggs, the current mayor, and she said that “no one was even thinking about children’s social care.”

“That was the picture of children’s services when I arrived and that’s what I inherited. By the time we discovered that all was not rosy in the garden, we were limited in what we could actually do. I think it’s fair to say we were overly optimistic; we didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was, we definitely didn’t expect to get ‘Inadequate’. But we had done too little too late.”

“The difference between the way Tower Hamlets responded to these issues and the way others have is one of the things that marked our approach to improvement. The first thing we did was take full accountability, I stood up in front of the staff and said ‘I’m the director; the failure is both mine and corporates.’ We were very clear from the word go where the accountability lay, and it lay at the top. There was no question of trying to hide behind people further down the system.”

“The first thing we tried to understand is why is the system of leadership failing? Why is there a culture of non-compliance? Why were we overly optimistic? Why are children’s services being overlooked? As we asked ourselves all of these questions, we also appointed Sir Alan Wood to immediately become the chair of our improvement board. Alan was crucial because he had credibility, credibility we didn’t have at the time, and he was constructive and challenging. “There was also this notion that Tower Hamlets was different, unique, and special, that rules don’t apply here. This is of course rubbish, but it’s not unusual.”

Debbie, who previously worked as Ofsted’s own director of social care, used a piece of work she had worked on previously when she was president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in 2012-13. The framework set out what makes for a good local authority, and there were 12 factors that could be used to judge the council against. Debbie said: “Surprise surprise, we found ourselves severely wanting on all of them. We forensically inspected it and tried to build a foundation. But you have to bear in mind, when I arrived, they said to me ‘Debbie you’ve got a hell of a challenge there, you’re building on sand.’ You can’t build foundations if you don’t have the right ingredients or if you don’t have a clear structure and a clear vision. So we looked through all the issues we were facing, and from there we built a very comprehensive improvement plan, 60 pages long.”

“The improvement plan was a living and breathing document - it wasn’t something we pulled from a shelf, it was something that we worked on with the staff. This was because one of the reasons an organisation slips is because it loses contact with staff on the front line. That diagnostic was the single most important thing we did. The other important change was the cultural one. When you get rated as ‘Inadequate’, what tends to happen is you lose staff. Going through intervention is tough - the pressure is on and if you’re not used to it, you’re unlikely to want to stay on the bus.”

“So we mapped out what the next two and a half years would look like in order to get ourselves out of inadequacy. We set ourselves an ambition to be ‘Good’. At the time people said to us ‘you probably set the bar too high’ but as I kept saying, how can I possibly have an ambition to be ‘Requires Improvement’? ‘Good’ was the only thing good enough for children and families, I can’t be here and accept anything less.”

“Less than half the staff from the pre-inadequacy days are still here but the difference is that the staff who stayed are the ones who wanted to stay with us. The way they talk about what we’ve done is actually inspirational. I go out on visits with the staff and I’m observing what they do and I’m truly humbled by the quality of the practice.”

In July this year, when Ofsted revisited the London borough’s children’s services they discovered a “transformed culture” and rewarded what they described as a “remarkable turnaround” with a ‘Good’ rating. Inspectors specifically pointed to a “relentless focus on improving practice, changing culture and tackling previous poor performance” from management, singling out Debbie’s work as making a “significant and discernible difference.”

“Of course you lose staff in the process, so your challenge is to develop a permanent workforce. In order to prevent moving around, we established a ‘social work academy’ in December 2018, offering better career opportunities and learning to our staff. It’s not just about how we support the newly qualified social workers but developing a home-grown workforce who want to stay with you. I want people to feel that when coming here, they will get to experience challenges that will equip them with the skills that, should they want to be a director of children’s services, they could be.”

“The latest inspection this year was very tough, but then it had to be because the Ofsted inspectors came in to look at ‘Inadequate’ rated children’s services. But when the outcome came, it had the most amazing impact on all of us. Today, we’re developing our improvement plan even further to get us to ‘Outstanding’ in a couple of years. We do think that we’re on our way towards that goal, so we keep our foot on the accelerator. We’re on a journey, and it doesn’t stop here.”


Integrated Health & Social Care


W: www.towerhamlets.gov.uk


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