It is April 2019 and John Readman will be holding the quarterly employee conference of West Sussex Child Services in Worthing.
It is the second day as Director of the Children's Fund and today the staff in the room hear for the first time the results of Ofsted's recent inspection.
And it is not pretty.
West Sussex is about to receive an inadequate assessment. The inspectors revealed numerous problems. Weaknesses in dealing with neglect cases. Gaps in supervision. Ineffective quality assurance. Children are not visited often enough.
When the results are told, John sees the concerned looks on the faces of the audience. Employees wondering how the service will fix these issues. A task for which John is now responsible.
But today John has a clear message: we can do that.
"I firmly believe that a system can be considered inadequate, but that does not mean that it is an individual," he explains. "Everyone here wants to make things right for the children of West Sussex, and Ofsted's insights are important, but as a team, we can master this challenge together.
"It's going to be difficult, but we can do that and we need to do that, and the children of West Sussex depend on us to do it right."
Make a big difference
None of the results showed that this day was a surprise for John, who previously ran childcare in Lancashire, Bristol and Hull. In fact, the challenge brought him to West Sussex.
"Like any social worker, I want to work in a place where I can make the biggest and best difference, and it was clear that West Sussex needed help and support," he says three months after the meeting in Worthing.
"Before I joined, I met a few team members and was really excited by the people I met at the top and in the field. I was happy to contribute to the improvement of this service. "
Another positive aspect was that the city council, even before Ofsted's arrival, had realized that the service was in trouble and began to invest in improvements.
"They invested more in recruiting service and social workers in November," says John. "It was too early to be noticeable at the time of the inspection, but that was the beginning when the political and corporate leaders of the council really stood up for the services of the children."
37 additional full-time jobs have been created for social workers, and as new employees are added, the challenge remains of recruiting experienced, permanent social workers.
The change has resulted in West Sussex investing £ 10 million a year in children's services and introducing a Cross-Children Principle of Children First.
Part of the additional funds will be used to strengthen administrative support for social workers so they can spend more time working directly with children and families.
The money also enables the service to hire more social workers and offer 20% of salary to existing and new, experienced practitioners as part of a new retention plan.
"85% of our social workers signed up for the storage package," says John.
"They're making an 18-month commitment to service, and that's impressive after a negative inspection." The team here says, "No, I want to do my part to improve the service for vulnerable children."
Social workers want to come here
The Council's ongoing recruitment offensive is also paying off.
In the past few months, 50 more people have joined the 450 children's social workers' team in the district, which has reduced the vacancy rate from 18% to 7%.
"People want to come here," says John. "They know that a significant task is imminent, but this is a place where they can make a real difference to children and families.
"It's also an organization that shows how much it values social workers through a favorable salary and retention package and the significant investments we make in education, development and support."
The influx of new social workers is beginning to reduce the workload in West Sussex.
"Case numbers are at their lowest level for two years for most of our social workers," notes John. "Manageable case numbers are critical to successful improvement. You can be the best social worker in the world with the best standards. However, if you handle too many cases, it will affect your practice. "
Specialized social worker
The Recruitment and Recruitment Offensive is one of the three pillars of the first phase of the improvement process.
Another reason is the rapid improvement in the security of the service, which offers social workers new training and tools to deal with neglect and revise schedules to give top-line practitioners high-quality and reflective oversight.
The final criterion is the development of a two- to three-year improvement plan that sets out how the service will raise standards.
Planned actions include a new review process that supports learning through the involvement of practitioners, leadership training in performance coaching, and the appointment of social workers specializing in preterm birth or litigation. These and others are all planned in the first year.
John is keen to emphasize that it requires teamwork to drive the necessary change.
Practitioners allow to thrive
Gillian Buchanan is the main social worker for West Sussex.
"While recognizing and accepting Ofsted's findings, it is important that we keep a close eye on some of the great practices and engagements already taking place in West Sussex," she says. "As the main social worker, I've spent time with social workers throughout the ministry, and I've seen first-hand how they're doing their best to ensure children's safety.
"After a poor inspection, we will be checking our compliance, our regulations and our legal obligations more closely, and that's understandable," adds Gillian.
"But we have to remember that social work is ultimately about making that positive difference for children. We need more experienced social workers who join us and cling to their sense of why they even got involved in social work. those who have a passion for what social work with families can achieve. "
John adds, "We are convinced that this is a long road to improvement, there is no quick fix."
"To succeed, we need an environment where practitioners can develop. Everyone I met here absolutely believes in the principle of Children First. That drives us.
"And that's why we want more social workers who are fully committed to making sure that children are at the heart of things and make a difference."