Research and evaluation

Action research into the enablers of improvement in children’s services

“The LGA / Isos children’s services research project should be essential reading for anyone interested in how authorities improve and develop.”
— Stuart Gallimore, Director of Children’s Services, East Sussex County Council, and Chair, ADCS Standards, Performance & Inspection Committee


The brief

Over the past four years, just over three quarters of local children’s services inspected by Ofsted under the Single Inspection Framework have been judged to be less than good – they have either been judged to require improvement or inadequate. There is the need, therefore, to understand how children’s services can improve and to embed this learning in the work of local children’s services and their partners. In this context, we were commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) to carry out an action research project exploring the enablers of and barriers to rapid and sustained improvement in local children’s services.

What did we do?

Between January and May 2016, we worked with a group of nine local children’s services (the local authority and their partners) using an action research approach.

  1. Initial fieldwork visits – we visited each of the nine local children’s services, learning about their improvement journeys and what they had found had enabled and impeded improvement. Through the visits, we engaged elected members, senior leaders, partner agencies, middle leaders and frontline staff.

  2. Action learning workshops – working in geographical clusters, we brought together senior officers from the local areas and used an action learning approach to learn about some of their key improvement activities, with peers providing a valuable and rich source of support and challenge.

  3. Developing our key findings by engaging a wider group of national and local stakeholders – we engaged senior leaders from a further eight local areas, as well as colleagues from the LGA, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), Ofsted and Department for Education. We tested our research findings through a series of workshops, which brought together all the local areas that had taken part in the research.

What difference did we make?

We presented our key findings in a compelling research report, which also included in-depth case studies showcasing some of the improvement projects worked on by the nine local areas that took part in the action research. Our aim, however, was not only for the research to inform national debate and policy, but also to assist leaders in local areas in their work to improve and sustain high-quality local children’s services. For that reason, we also developed a short, practical summary drawing out the practical implications and lessons from the research for local authority lead members and senior officers.

Since the report was published in the summer of 2016, we have held a series of four regional seminars, sponsored and supported by the LGA, for members and senior officers from a wider range of local areas to reflect on the research and the implications for their own children’s services improvement work. In October and November 2016, we held events in London, Taunton, Birmingham and Manchester, which were attended by members and senior officers from 50 local areas. Many described not only how our research chimed with the experience in their local area, but also how they had used the research to reflect on their improvement journeys and plan priorities for driving further, sustained improvement.

Following the initial research project, we have concluded a follow-up piece of research with the LGA focusing on the role and models of external support and intervention in supporting improvement in local children’s services. That research, entitled Enabling Improvement, was published in the summer of 2017 and can be found here.

What did the client say about the work?

“Looking after and protecting children is one of the most important jobs that a council does, and with demand increasing at the same time as funding is being reduced, it has never been more important for local leaders to make sure their children's services are working as well as they possibly can. Working with Isos and sector leaders on this research project was an important opportunity to identify the factors that help children's services to improve, and develop a clear framework with practical tools to help leaders effectively plan their improvement work. The strong, clear evidence presented by Isos means that all authorities, no matter what stage their children's services are at, can identify the improvements they need to make, and Isos have worked with us to disseminate these key message across the country. This research has been exceptionally well received by children's services leaders, and it has made an important contribution to this essential area of public service.” 
— Councillor David Simmonds, Chair of the Local Government Association Children’s Improvement Board

“The LGA / Isos children’s services research project should be essential reading for anyone interested in how authorities improve and develop. Key to the work has been the way Isos have sought to develop the content iteratively as they have responded to the views from sector leaders. Listening carefully to the challenges from those involved at all levels, they have fashioned an evidence-based document that should resonate throughout the sector.” 
— Stuart Gallimore, Director of Children’s Services, East Sussex County Council, and Chair, ADCS Standards, Performance & Inspection Committee

“The LGA/Isos action research helped put everything in a context for me. I have been using the learning from the research and conversations about it with colleagues to strengthen the approach we are taking in Wirral. I also attended the regional seminars and was invited to say a few words about our work in Wirral. It was good to be part of such a positive event and to speak about our improvement journey so far. It was a brilliant event.” 
— Julia Hassall, Director of Children’s Services, Wirral