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Focussing on improvement

One of the things that struck me when I took up the post of director of children’s services (DCS) in Rochdale 3 years ago was the high level of commitment to sector-led improvement (SLI) in the North West.

As a new DCS in a council that was in intervention, I certainly appreciated the existence and approach of the annual peer challenge process; more importantly the offer and delivery of support from others in the region during the following months told me I was working in a region where the sector was really getting hold of this issue.

As a large and diverse region, the North West has more than its fair share of councils with similar difficulties. A number of authorities have in recent years, successfully exited intervention, demonstrating progress and improvement. In doing so, it seems councils made good use of the support and generosity of other local authorities through discrete peer reviews, specific support and the regular Working Together to Improve network. It’s also apparent that the process and approach taken is a continually growing and developing one.

If this all works so well you might ask, why does the North West continue to experience a significant proportion of inadequate outcomes from inspections? This is something we challenge ourselves with. Are we doing the wrong things? Or perhaps the right things in the wrong way? We emerged with a number of possible responses that unsurprisingly include high levels of deprivation, workforce and recruitment pressures and disproportionate budget pressures since 2010, all of which will have had an impact in some areas. In reality, though, there is no single reason and that is the challenge that we all continue to face.

Recent discussions about self-assessments with Ofsted at a national level have chimed with our work in the region, where we use an agreed format of “self-view” as the starting point for the peer challenge.

This includes sign off by lead members to ensure political awareness and engagement in the process. The SLI board examines each one along with high-quality performance and benchmarking data to frame the key areas for challenge in advance. It’s a robust process. We also plan to test out use of the ISOS seven universal enablers of improvement in children’s services in this next round of peer challenges to understand where each council currently sees itself and what that means for plans and priorities, locally and regionally.

For the first time, we also plan to use this process along with the findings of the peer challenge in each annual conversation with Ofsted, which take place between January and March 2017. When discussing the option to link these two processes together, we found the discussion with Ofsted regional colleagues to be open and positive. It’s the reaction to this from informal conversations with colleagues nationally that have been interesting. I haven’t yet reached the position of thinking “have we made a mistake?”, but I am surprised by the different approaches in each region and the fact that not all regions appear to engage in these annual conversations.

Experience tells us they tend to go one of two ways. The more useful meetings are well planned, with a clear agenda and focus. It was because that didn’t happen consistently for us last year that we wanted to influence how we could do things differently.

As the old saying goes, however, the proof of the pudding …

I hope we’ll be able to share the experience with colleagues in a few months.

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