West Berkshire: Building leaders in children’s services

West Berkshire achieved rapid improvement in its children’s services leading to a turnaround from an inadequate inspection result in March 2015 to an overall good result in May 2017. One of the contributory factors was a Staff College Leadership Development Programme which was commissioned in consultation with the council by the Local Government Association in 2015.


The purpose of the programme was to help leaders in children’s social care to step up from operational management to take on a more strategic leadership role, develop a sense of team and collective ownership, and thereby assist the team to deliver service improvement. This case study aims to examine the contribution the programme made to their rapid improvement journey.

The challenge

In May 2015, West Berkshire received an inadequate result in its children’s service inspection. DfE advisers had worked with the DCS and together they identified a key issue to address was the need for operational managers in the service to become more strategic and take accountability for service improvement.  A new AD had just been appointed. As a result of a discussion with the LGA children’s service associate, a leadership development programme was commissioned from The Staff College to build leadership capacity in the children’s social care leadership team. 

The solution

The leadership development programme was delivered, over four sessions starting in October 2015, to the Children and Families Leadership Team led by the assistant director. The aim of the programme was to help the team:

  • Work with a set of leadership tools, techniques and approaches, which can be applied effectively to improving professional practice and the provision of services
  • Gain an enhanced understanding of the broader context within which public sector leaders work and its influence on their ability to make a difference
  • Consider excellence in leadership, reflecting an understanding of the behaviours and attributes of highly effective systems leaders
  • Reflect on the real challenges that they are facing in the context of a new approach to leadership that recognises the imperative for whole systems change

The team felt the programme helped them to see their leadership task as part of a wider national landscape. The programme introduced the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). The team recognised that leading in a chaotic, unpredictable environment with wicked problems required a different form of more systemic leadership than that they were currently using. The team comfortably used the terms ’hard power’ and ‘soft power’, the need to ‘get on the balcony and observe the dance floor,’ and ‘the need to change the narrative and use stories to change behaviour’.

Part of the programme encouraged the group to look at their public value proposition. “We considered other LA’s and distilled the essence of what they were about so we could identify our distinctive public value proposition, which is a leadership vision for permanency.”

It was clear that the programme contributed to the building of a collective - a collaborative team who felt they were leading the service together. During the programme, two members of the team who joined as agency/interim staff decided they wanted to be permanent employees. This sense of collective was referred to by all. “You cannot drive forward your bit of the service in isolation.”
“Any individual’s success is everyone’s success – any challenge is a challenge for all of us.”

The facilitator of the programme gave many examples of what works elsewhere and the team felt this had encouraged them to look at what other LAs were doing and learn from it. The programme also offered the chance for the team to reflect on different styles. “You’ve got to see how different people think and how they arrive at their conclusions. Some make quick judgements, some take a circuitous route. They take a long time to get to a higher quality outcome.” One team member had found the concept of ‘slow thinking’ helped to steady her team when there were crises in casework. “I like the concept of ‘slow thinking’ I use it during crises to say, ‘We won’t make a long-term decision in a crisis.’”  She felt that this led to a change in the work, “We have more tame problems than we used to have, and less crises, because of more thoughtful earlier intervention”.

The programme built on a strong restorative culture in the council. This was not an outcome of the programme, rather a helpful input to it. The council and its Members trusted the team in the local authority to take the service out of special measures. The team felt this was a good decision as they felt nurtured and during the programme, there was a substantial shift in the way people responded to poor practice. The leaders distinguished between being focused on improvement and being controlling. This helped people to manage performance in a way that was tough on the problem but not hard on the people. “You trust first and then afterwards be more focused. High challenge, high support - you can’t put pressure on without giving.”

The impact

The authority had a second Ofsted Inspection 26 months after the last one in May 2017. The Service was judged as good overall. It is hard to separate out the impact of the programme from the other things the council was doing.  For example, council’s embracing of the need to improve and to provide support for children’s services was very important, particularly a decision by Members to give additional project management support to the improvement programme in the form of two very skilled project managers. [Ofsted: Children’s social care services enjoy strong and consistent support from elected members, the chief executive and leaders in partner agencies.]

Some examples of the changes the programme has influenced are as follows: The team had learned new tools which helped them influence and change the service. This leadership was providing visible support for a shared and distinctive vision for permanency. [Ofsted: A stronger emphasis on achieving permanence for children across children’s social care is evident, with proactive intervention, parallel planning and options being pursued for children when they cannot return home.] There was also greatly increased stability in the workforce. [Ofsted: The vacancy rate has fallen from 50 per cent at the time of the last inspection to 10 per cent, a notable achievement that leaders are rightly proud of].

There were also enhanced partner relationships. [Ofsted: Leaders in the local authority have worked proactively and successfully with partners, first to address critical weaknesses and, more recently, to deliver the changes needed to provide a consistently good service.]

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

The programme worked for several reasons. One is that the outside conditions were congruent with the messages being delivered in the team. This was felt as a shared culture and values that permeated the authority, but became stronger as leaders understood their task was to lead and model that change across the service. The second was the increased confidence in the leaders, particularly in their ability to influence in areas where they only had soft power. The third was the development of a collective who supported each other and could have robust debate without damaging relationships.  Finally, they created an improvement culture in which people that were focused hard on the problems but created a climate in which people felt safe and nurtured. The director sees the programme as having created a collective that will now endure, even as team members change in the future.

Lessons learned

Leadership development can make a significant contribution to children’s service improvement, but its success is very influenced by the context in which it is delivered. The cultural conditions were right in West Berkshire for the programme to have a lasting impact.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Rachael Wardell, West Berkshire Council or Adele Chatterton at The Staff College.