Cllr Philip Read is the Cabinet Member for Children’s Services on Bexley Council.
Four years ago Bexley’s Children’s service was judged by Ofsted as requiring improvement, this was better than the inadequate judgement of two years earlier but still unacceptable and it was clear that significant action was required to upgrade the quality of service provided to our most vulnerable residents but how to do it without breaking the bank?
There was one area in particular where action would both improve service quality and produce savings that could be directed elsewhere and that was to address the high levels of agency/interim workers within the service.
Astonishingly Bexley had fewer than 40 per cent permanent staff, with over 60 per cent being agency staff. That had to change because, and I know this is a generalisation, permanent staff, by the very nature of their responsibility to their employer, have a greater commitment to continuing and improving service quality and reliability than will their agency counterparts.
Agency work was though very attractive to staff due to spiralling rates of pay as authorities fought each other to fill the gaps in their workforce, and the more those rates increased the more attractive agency working appeared, creating a vicious circle that had to be broken.
So we set out to do just that by working with other London boroughs to halt that rise in agency rates by capping the costs we would collectively pay. By and large that has worked as did our lobbying with others of government ministers to address the iniquitous issue of agency workers marketing themselves as their own limited company, with all the tax advantages that brought them, despite the fact that they were effectively what HMRC called ‘disguised employees’. That lobbying has brought about a tightening of the legislation making off-payroll working much less attractive and reducing the ability to avoid PAYE and NI.
At the same time, we set out to attract the brightest and best of the newly qualified social workers, whilst attracting and retaining increasingly capable staff throughout the service and we did that, not by increasing salaries but by providing attractive working conditions, inspiring leadership, case load support and clear help and guidance in developing careers.
The upshot of that focus on our staff is that now our Children’s Services department has around 90 per cent permanent staff and we have ambitions to increase that further still.
That focus on the quality and permanence of our staffing plus ensuring we have the right infrastructure, the right targeted investment and a continuing rigid focus on both service quality and performance has brought us to the point where, in just four years we have gone from requires improvement to outstanding.
Achieving that result, even with increasing levels of permanent staff, has not been easy and it is right that we should acknowledge the work that has gone into completely transforming the service – ably led by our Director, Jacky Tiotto, whose leadership and drive has been inspirational – and all those involved (council officers, councillors and partners) should be commended for what they do and aspire to do for Bexley’s young people.
It is now a very different service today and that didn’t happen by chance – a lot of blood, sweat and tears by a number of people has brought about that change.
However, we also recognise that the difference between success and failure is wafer thin – the Ofsted judgement is a snapshot in time just like a MOT inspection on a car. The true measure of success is continued improvement, staying ahead of the curve and striving to ensure the service remains one deserving of our residents and reflective of the passion of those who deliver it.
Just like an MOT – we need now to make sure the standard is upheld and improved further through and beyond the next inspection.