‘We want to work with children and families, rather than doing things for them’ – how Leeds children’s services turned the tide

The story of children’s services at Leeds City Council in recent years is a remarkable one.

Leeds City Council head of children and families Steve Walker.

As recently as 2010, the authority was rated “inadequate” by education watchdog Ofsted, which claimed the council was not adequately safeguarding children.

Since then, the transformation has been stark, so much so that Ofsted awarded the city’s children’s services “outstanding” in December 2018 – making Leeds the only large city authority in the country to achieve this rating.

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One of the people who masterminded that change was the council’s head of children’s services, Steve Walker, who joined the authority in 2011.

Leeds City Council head of children and families Steve Walker.

He said: “We signed up to a way of working with children and families, rather than doing things to them and for them.

“It’s not rocket science – what you need to do is have a clear commitment in providing an environment to do best practice. That’s about having manageable case-loads, good management and having a good office environment.

“We wanted to get cases down to below 20 (per social worker) – the average case load at the time was 29.”

The figures bear this out too.

Statistics released by in a council report earlier this month claimed the number of children with child protection plans in the city fell from just over 60 per 10,000 children in 2013, to slightly above 30 per 10,000 in 2018.

But how has this happened?

Mr Walker said one of the keys was to make social workers want to stay in their posts.

He added: “People tend to look at the number of social workers that we have from the point of view of recruitment. They say we need to up salaries and recruit more social workers.

“But the majority of social workers that we had were newly qualified – so we needed to look at retention and development.

“We were spending in the region of £7 million a year on agency staffing. We have now got ourselves in a position where we have three agency social workers out of a workforce of more than 300.

“We now have stability in the workforce – social work is all about being able to build relationships with families and children at times of difficulty.

“If you are seeing a different social worker every six weeks, that doesn’t enable you to build the relationships and have confidence, and it doesn’t allow me to know what your issues are as a child or as a parent.”

So impressed was the government with the improvement in Leeds City Council’s children’s services, it asked the authority to step in and help neighbouring Kirklees Council’s children’s services back in 2017.

Mr Walker said: “For a short period, I was director of children’s services for both authorities – that was such a key decision because there was an impact on leadership in Leeds.

Portfolio holder for children’s services Coun Lisa Mulherin added: “We had to weigh it up. If we hadn’t gone in to support Kirklees, it would have ended up in an expensive trust model which would have taken them away from local democratic control. We wanted to support a local authority that was struggling as we were nine years earlier.

“Having been on that journey ourselves, we wanted to be able to support them. It was intensive support that was required – and we were only willing to do that if we weren’t to see our own improvement journey falter.”

Another decision made by Leeds was to keep open its 69 children’s centres, despite more than 1,000 closing across the country in recent years.

Mr Walker said this was important in preventing problems with children and families before they became too severe, adding: “We have saved £5.5 million on agency fees every year – this has meant that we have maintained all of our children’s centres. They are an important early intervention and preventative measure for children in need.

“If you don’t have those, the needs get more intense and are passed on to the social work services. This then becomes more complex and you get more of them.”

So where do you go after an “outstanding” rating? Coun Mulherin says the challenge now is to protect children from the effects of poverty.

She said: “We have also seen the communities we serve being hit by benefit cuts and wage restraints and households across Leeds in our most deprived communities are really struggling.

“We have to address the impact of child poverty – we can only address the impacts because we do not have the levers locally to change the benefits system.

“We still have significant levels of child poverty in the city, and most of those children are living in a household where at least one of their parents is working.

Mr Walker added: “We used to have an obsession with attendance – we wanted to make sure all children were taking up their entitlement to access education.

“But we now reached the stage where we recognise that is not enough. They have to be in school ready and able to learn.”

He added that proposals will be brought before council later this year for a programme aimed at helping children develop social skills and take part in positive activities outside of school hours.

“If you put children and families at the heart of everything you do,” he said. “You can make a huge difference in a very complex and demanding environment.

“You have to be on your mettle here, because the expectations are so high. There is no easy day in Leeds. There is no quiet time – I keep waiting for it, but it doesn’t come!

“But that’s good because, for a lot of children and families in the city, there is no easy day either. So until they’re having easy days, we’re not going to have an easy day.”