After Denbighshire County Council created a combined Education and Children’s Service, improvements were seen in communication, strategic planning and use of resources. Professionals have been able to better understand pupils’ needs and earlier identify vulnerable young people. The service has also improved learning environments, and support given to individuals and families.
Denbighshire County Council is a local authority in North Wales with a total population of 94,805. The county stretches from the coastal resorts of Rhyl and Prestatyn through the historic towns of St. Asaph, Denbigh and Ruthin and the hills of the Clwydian Range, to the Dee Valley and the towns of Llangollen and Corwen. The local authority maintains eight secondary schools, 47 primary schools, two special schools and a pupil referral unit.
Denbighshire County Council’s overriding ambition is to make a significant and lasting difference to the people and communities of Denbighshire. The council has maintained its position as being one of the highest performing Councils in Wales despite the challenging climate of continuous change and diminishing financial resources. It has also maintained its commitment to improving the offer for its residents and maintaining its reputation for delivering effective and efficient services. This ambition is the integral, golden thread, which connects the strategic direction with operational delivery. Within the context of Education and Children’s Services it underpins the commitment to improve education outcomes and keep children safe from harm. This has been a key driver in influencing the strategic and operational leadership decisions taken by the service.
The strength of this approach has been confirmed by the judgements awarded in the Estyn inspections of 2012 and 2018. In both inspections, Denbighshire was awarded an Excellent judgement for leadership and management.
The 2018 inspection reported that the:
corporate plan demonstrates the council’s clear commitment to improving education, with one of its five main objectives being to develop Denbighshire as ‘a place where younger people will want to live and work and have the skills to do so
It also reported that:
Over time, very strong senior leadership in the local authority has ensured a determined focus on improving provision and outcomes for learners. A highly effective impact of this is the way leaders have demonstrated the confidence to recently amalgamate the education service and the children’s service into one collegiate department to deliver a coherent and efficient integrated service. This is having a very positive effect on the provision available to children and young people and a beneficial impact on learners' wellbeing.
In 2015, the Council took the decision to merge Education; and Children and Family Services under one Head of Service. In April 2016, Education and Children’s Services was officially launched. The context of Denbighshire is important in order to understand the rationale for and approach to the joining the services. At the outset it was recognised and understood that the joining of two high risk services required a sensitive and considered approach; and would be a major change in service delivery. Therefore, the strategic directive and rationale was carefully communicated by the Chief Executive and other Senior Officers. At the outset, through the communication and consultation process, it was made clear that the purpose of the merger was not simply to bring together two services under the management of one Head of Service, but to fully integrate them to ensure a cohesive and unified approach, in order to provide better services to children and young people. The implementation of the merger was carefully planned for and the rationale for merging the two service areas was very clearly communicated. The success of the merger has been dependant on recognising the importance the following:
- Communication, Consultation, Engagement and Implementation
- Continuous Evaluation
- Building Relationships
Culture of the organisation (Values/Principles)
An adherence to public services values has been at the heart of engagement with residents (including children and young people); and has been a key feature of the approach to leadership through the Council and corporate planning process. The Council has a strong belief in developing a single public service culture. There was therefore, already a well-established expectation that services would work together and work with partners and with the wider community. There was also an expectation of services, that structures are flexible and readily able to adapt in order to accommodate changing expectations and priorities.
Opportunity was presented due to the mature and well-established culture of the organisation, but also the expectations presented by changing legislation:
- Social Services and Wellbeing Act Wales
- Well-being of Future Generations Act
- Anticipated reform of ALN (Additional Learning Needs)
- Increased expectation of regional working
The key principles collectively underpinning the above legislation supported the rationale for merging, as there is clearly a shared focus on ensuring that:
- The needs of the child or young person is at the centre of everything we do.
- All professionals working with children and young people must have a shared responsibility in working to prevent escalation of need.
- People of all ages will have more say in the care and support they receive.
Quite simply, the joining of the two services was a common sense approach to ensuring that:
- All professionals working with children and young people fulfil their shared responsibility in working to prevent escalation of need.
- All professionals understand their duty to contribute to providing the best learning, and care and support offer in a way which best meets the needs of the individual and family.
Communication, Consultation, Engagement and Implementation
Research and preparation
Senior Officers undertook a considerable amount of research and engaged in a lengthy process of preparation. Models of delivery in other Councils across the UK were considered and significant attention was given to the breadth of responsibility that senior leaders in the service would be accountable for, particularly within the context of changing legislation. Considerable thought was given to what the operational structure would look like. The Corporate Director established a board to oversee development and implementation with key Elected Members represented.
Communication and Engagement
A Consultation/Engagement paper was written and shared widely. This clearly explained the rationale for the proposal, the changes to the operational structure and the time frame within which the restructure would take place. At that point the focus was a ‘blending’ of the department management team. There was a clear differentiation between those staff who were being consulted with as result of a direct impact on them; and those staff receiving communication as part of an engagement strategy. Elected Members and the Trade Unions were included; and at this time there was no negative or oppositional response from any party.
In addition, opportunity was given for staff in both discreet services to meet and share areas of commonality and identify opportunity for a shared approach. This was done through a series of scheduled ‘Away Days, attended by the Corporate Director, both Heads of Service and the Lead Member.
Within the first few months the service developed the following:I
- A single Business Plan with shared priorities to support the delivery of the Corporate Plan.
- One leadership team.
- Single service management meetings.
- Single service staff meetings and learning opportunities.
- Cohesive and coordinated approach to working with partners such as Health.
- Consolidation of early intervention and prevention service areas by bringing teams together.
- A more coordinated approach to service delivery for individual children and their families.
In May 2017, the structure and approach to service delivery presented further opportunity for consolidation in a number of areas:
- The interface between provision for children and young people with additional learning needs and provision for those with disabilities.
- Approaches to respite provision and out of county placements.
- The link between therapeutic services offered and the school based counselling service.
- Approach to early year’s provision in support of readiness for school.
- A co-ordinated training programme for everyone involved in working with Children and Young people including Governors around key themes e.g. safeguarding, attachment, behaviour management.
- The school admissions process in relation to LAC, and vulnerable pupils.
- Support for young carers.
- School transport arrangements in support of ALN and most vulnerable.
- Coordination of response to complex needs in relation to both the Education and Social Care offer.
These opportunities were not only identified by members of the management team, but were common themes discussed in the service away days. At this stage, it was reassuring that staff were proactively engaged in identifying areas for development. It was clear that there was a general recognition that if full advantage was to be taken of the opportunities presented by the creation of one service, staff needed to think in a more holistic way about service delivery to children and their families, as there was concern that an uncoordinated offer can cause confusion and have a negative impact on children and young people.
The following areas were developed further:
- Education Resources and Support
- Early Intervention, Prevention, Health and Well being
- Statutory Services
Due to the level of risk identified at the beginning of the process, the progress of the merger was regularly reviewed and evaluated through the following:
- Test of Assurance
- Elected Member Scrutiny
- Corporate Scrutiny
In addition, CIW and Estyn were updated as part of the termly meeting process. This not only ensured thorough risk management, but also maintained a level of continuous engagement from relevant parties.
Careful consideration was given to alleviating anxiety created by significant service restructure. A number opportunities were presented for staff to get to know each other; and a key focus was to ensure that staff had a better understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. All communication was focused on reassuring staff that this was a ‘joining’ or ‘blending’ of services, not a takeover.
Overall, both strategically and operationally the Service has realised its ambition of delivering a cohesive and coordinated service offer. The impact of this has been:
- Improved strategic planning, operational delivery and prioritisation of resource.
- More effective communication across all teams in the service, and sharing of knowledge and expertise.
- An improved training offer and increased opportunity to share learning as a result of increased accessibility to a more extensive and diverse range of knowledge and expertise.
- Improved communication and understanding of need.
- Early identification of vulnerable pupils and coordinated support in and out of school.
In addition, for particular groups of children and young people a single service approach has enabled a more bespoke response to complex challenges:
- Children at risk of CSE (Child Sexual Exploitation)
- Children with a disability
- Children exhibiting complex and challenging behaviours.
Evidence can therefore be presented to show that this has resulted in:
- An Improved learning environment.
- Continuously improving teaching and learning offer.
- Better informed and continuously improving care and support offer.
Two significant points of learning have been taken from this experience:
- An approach such as this must be a part of the overall vision and commitment of the council. Imposing a template will not work.
- The importance of building relationship and securing staff engagement cannot be underestimated.