In the 10 years before Jenny Turnross joined Birmingham Children’s Trust in 2018, the inspectorate Ofsted returned time and time again to find that services for children were inadequate.
Birmingham City Council’s children’s trust became operationally independent of the council in April of that year, and just five months later Ms Turnross took on the job of director of practice. Why did she want to step into what would have been one of the toughest roles in children’s services at the time?
‘I saw the potential in the service’, she tells The MJ. ‘I met a lot of the staff and the leaders in the organisation, and yes, it was a big piece of work to embark upon.’ But she felt that with the right infrastructure and the right leadership, ‘we could in fact improve children’s services’.
She adds: ‘What a challenge at this point in my career to move to the biggest local authority, the biggest system, with huge complexity across the whole partnership. So I was up for it.’
Immediately before to moving to Birmingham she had been a senior Her Majesty’s Inspector (HMI) for Ofsted in the West Midlands. As a senior HMI she was on the inspection team when services were found to be inadequate, and was involved in monitoring work. So she knew the issues in detail.
‘To be honest, when you work for an inspectorate like Ofsted, when you’re looking in, you’re very forensic in your thinking and your application. I also felt that I knew what needed to happen.’
The trust’s current Ofsted rating is ‘requires improvement – so we’ve moved up a notch after 11 years,’ she explains. It is also a psychological step forward for the staff, the trust’s partners and for the council.
What are the key elements of that improvement strategy? One of the main ingredients is ‘having a stable, well-structured leadership team with a very clear vision for children’s services’. She also stresses the importance of having ‘a stable workforce in place, with a very clear progression, and learning and development plan for our staff’.
She emphasises how crucial it is ‘for our staff to know that they feel valued and believed in, actually’, following on from 10 years of ‘a lot of oversight from Ofsted, partners telling us constantly you’re inadequate – you don’t particularly feel you’re too valued and too good at what you do’.
Another priority was having a ‘really clear communication strategy with the workforce so that they were really clear about the vision, the fact that senior leaders had the back of our staff, and would support safe decision making’.
It’s not all about an Ofsted grading, she adds: ‘It is about staff and children and families recognising that we have a better title than inadequate. From that, comes confidence. We’re still on a massive improvement journey.’
She said the trust has supported the social care workforce under difficult conditions during the pandemic.
Ms Turnross believes the crisis has meant significant barriers have broken down and communication and collaboration between partners – including the council, the police, the NHS and the voluntary and community sector – has improved. There has been a major emphasis throughout on working with partners on a system-wide approach to early help. As a result, the trust and its voluntary sector community has secured a contract with the council to deliver early help services on behalf of the partnership.
Technology has also been used as an enabler. Ahead of COVID-19 the trust had already provided new laptops and mobiles to staff, supported by the implementation of the ECLIPSE dedicated software platform. ‘I got very involved in the project, because I know that recording systems for social work and all of the reporting that runs from that is really important for practice.’
This meant the trust was able to deploy its staff very quickly on to remote working. Around that, it built ‘a huge communications strategy so every day we sent out communications to the whole workforce from our chief executive’. This has endured throughout the pandemic.
There has also been a huge focus throughout on staff wellbeing: ‘From an emotional health and wellbeing point of view, what we did was we set up a whole support system for our staff.’
Which aspects of the organisation’s approach to COVID-19 is she most proud of? ‘I have to say that the workforce have absolutely responded tremendously during the pandemic in terms of the safety of children. Social workers have stood up and have effectively been the support service.’
Throughout the crisis, the trust has been ‘really been quite rigorous in our practice evaluations and our audit and our supervision of staff’ she concludes.
‘We’ve not let anything slip, because we’ve got to keep growing, developing and improving’.