Title: Re-discovering Community Social Work? An Evaluation of a Social Worker Based in Children’s Centres
Authors: Janet Boddy, Valerie Wigfall and Antonia Simon.
Institution: The research was carried out by a team based at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, at the Institute of Education, University of London.
Collaboration is not a new aspiration for children’s social care policy. Nick Frost from the University of Leeds suggested in 2005 that the death of seven-year-old Maria Colwell in 1973 heralded a focus on how front-line professionals worked together – or failed to work together – effectively. Since then, collaboration has remained a theme in policy documents, including Every Child Matters: Change for Children and the Children Act 2004. The Every Child Matters agenda also emphasises early intervention and preventive work with children and families, an area where research shows that social workers can play a valuable role.
The creation of children’s trusts and the introduction of the common assessment framework (CAF) and lead professional role place much of the onus on local authorities – and their staff – to ensure that services collaborate in early intervention and preventive work. But how easy is it to achieve such objectives? And what is the role of social work within these new frameworks?
Brandon and colleagues evaluated 12 CAF trailblazers. They found that most work on the CAF to date had been undertaken by practitioners from education and health sectors, not social services links with the statutory children’s social care “in need” assessments were not extensive. Moreover, early intervention services such as Sure Start have not usually included mainstream social workers – social work has often been construed as a tertiary/residual service, where interventions are directed towards families whose children are in imminent danger of admission to care.
This article describes an evaluation of a pilot post, funded in an inner London borough, for a link social worker based in two children’s centres. The post was line-managed in social services, but involved a new form of social work in the borough. It was based in the community, working day-to-day with children’s centre staff – particularly the Sure Start family support team – as well as the children and families who used the centres, and external professionals, such as health visitors and social workers, who worked with the families.
The evaluation aimed to illuminate the advantages and disadvantages of this new social work role, drawing on a small number of interviews with key stakeholders (four interviews, carried out about three months after the pilot post was established, and 11 interviews, conducted about 11 months after the post started). Monitoring data were analysed on 79 family support cases in two Sure Start programmes over six months.
While a small evaluation of a single pilot post, the research echoes the findings of larger studies of the development of joined-up working in children’s services. As an example of innovative social work practice, it offers a model of community social work relevant to the Every Child Matters objectives.
One of the link social worker’s objectives was to support the development of cross-agency working. Weekly multi-agency referral meetings were established, where children’s centre cases were discussed in a cross-disciplinary group of up to 20 other professionals, and decisions about onward referral would be agreed. Those attending the meetings included workers from the children’s centres, nurseries and family support teams, health visitors and child and adolescent mental health services practitioners from the primary care trust, and local voluntary agencies. Good cross-disciplinary relationships had been formed, although some professionals proved difficult to engage. Overall, the meetings were seen as a step forward – “it feels more cohesive and it works better, and we are doing a better job with families”. Monitoring data showed more professionals were involved with cases in the children’s centres where the link social worker was based.
By playing an active role in work with children and families, the link social worker had become known and accepted by staff and by families. This was described by one as a “PR job”, changing families’ negative perceptions of social workers. Another said: “It’s trustwhere social services has been a real no-go area, that barrier has been broken down with staff and with the community.” The less formal aspects of the role were seen as critical to this shift in perceptions – having the time and the willingness to “muck in”, for example by spending time in the nurseries, participating in stay-and-play sessions and “allowing families to access social workers in a more informal and neutral way and thus removing some of the stigma”.
Support for other professionals was another key feature of the post, combining social work expertise with day-to-day knowledge of children and families. One respondent said the post had made a “huge difference” in “upping the ante for safe practice” within a Sure Start family support team with mixed professional backgrounds and qualifications. Others saw benefits in accelerating timescales in decision-making and in making referrals to social services when necessary, providing “a link between the community and us [social services] that works both ways to prevent some families coming into contact with us, and enabling others who need to, to have the more specialist child protection support”.
The link social worker supported the pilot implementation of the CAF in the two children’s centres – something described as challenging and time-consuming, but judged overall to have encouraged a child-centred and outcomes-focused approach to early intervention with families.
The CAF can be daunting for practitioners, requiring a range of different skills and a new way of thinking. One senior interviewee observed: “They [children’s centre staff] certainly couldn’t have done it without [the link social worker], and still can’t[he] helps a lot with the writing, the wording, thinking about how to share it. [That’s] not something that a quick induction training course is going to replace.”
As part of the pilot, the link social worker also held three social services cases. While his day-to-day knowledge of the families was seen as a strength in this work, this “traditional” social work was seen by several interviewees as incompatible with a community social work role. One said: “He needs to have a different relationship with families than we do [as case-holding social workers]. Otherwise, you could end up with a situation where the link social workers are given the cases that we can’t get to see, the people we can’t reach. If those families then stop using the children’s centres because they’re trying to avoid social work contact, we could lose touch with them altogether.”
In common with many evaluations of joined-up working initiatives, the evaluation highlighted both benefits and challenges arising from the link social worker post. As Margy Whalley from the Penn Green Centre once observed: “Integration, partnership and joined-up thinking are easy to say but hard to achieve.” Those interviewed for the link social worker evaluation suggested that, overall, the challenges were worth the gains.
More generally, the pilot post showed how a new way of working – a community social work role – could address many of the policy objectives set out in documents such as Every Child Matters, by supporting interprofessional working, early intervention and the implementation of the CAF. As such, it has wider relevance for social work practice development, in children’s centres and perhaps also in other universal settings, such as extended schools.
Janet Boddy and Valerie Wigfall are research officers at the Thomas Coram Research Unit
Every Child Matters: Change for Children has prioritised:
● Integrated working across agencies and
● Outcome-focused early intervention and preventive work with families.
Most social workers in social services teams have workloads that leave little time for involvement in early preventive work with children and families. The Every Child Matters agenda, along with the introduction of the common assessment framework and the lead professional role, demands that community-based professionals, such as Sure Start workers, health visitors and child care workers, extend their expertise in assessing and supporting children and families with significant social care needs.
A ‘new role’: Community Social Work
A new community social work role could address some of the challenges posed by Every Child Matters, by:
● Supporting the development of multi-agency working
● Taking an active role in community/children’s centre work with families
● Providing support and advice for children’s centre staff and professionals in related agencies, drawing on social work expertise and day-to-day knowledge of children and families, and including support for the implementation of the common assessment framework.
Messages for Change
● The parameters of a new community role for social work in universal settings must be clearly defined to ensure that workers across agencies and professional disciplines can learn what the post is, and what they can expect of the postholders. Lack of clarity or standardisation is likely to foster resistance to the posts, and to exacerbate difficulties in establishing common protocols and clear lines of accountability.
● The post’s positioning – between social services and a universal setting, but fully part of neither – could be challenging. Previous evaluations of joined-up working have highlighted the importance of support frameworks for averting professional anxiety and mistrust and the tensions that can arise from conflicting management pressures and loyalties.
● The link social worker role must have clear lines of accountability and formalised frameworks for joint working and information sharing between agencies.
It takes time
● In the present research, time on-site in the children’s centres was seen as critical in building relationships with families and common understandings and mutual trust among professionals.
● For many professionals, the new forms of multi-disciplinary working represent a significant cultural change, which – by necessity – is a gradual process. Teething troubles can be expected, whether in engaging workers from diverse backgrounds in the process, or in the beginning to build common understandings and protocols.
Reviews of research evidence
● Frost N (2005), Review of the literature related to professionalism, partnership and joined-up thinking. Dartington: Research in Practice.
● Walker M (2005), “The statutory social worker’s role in prevention and early intervention with children“, 21st Century Social Work. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive. Accessed 23 January 2007:
● Statham J, Cameron C, and Mooney M (2006), The tasks and roles of social workers: A focused review of research evidence. London: Institute of Education.Evaluation of CAF trailblazers
● Brandon M, Howe A, et al (2006), Evaluating the Common Assessment Framework and Lead Professional Guidance and Implementation in 2005-6. DfES Research Report RR740, DfES.
● Tunstill J and Aldgate J (2000), Children in Need: From Policy to Practice. London: The Stationery Office.
● Ghate D and Ramella M (2002), Positive Parenting. The National Evaluation of the Youth Justice Board’s Parenting Programme. London: Policy Research Bureau.
● Stafford H (2005), “The emerging role for social work in children’s centres”, Norwich: Social Work Monographs, School of Social Work and Psychosocial Studies, University of East Anglia.
● Whalley M (1994), Learning to Be Strong: Setting up a Neighbourhood Service for Under-fives and their Families. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
● Myers P, Barnes J and Brodie I, (2004) Partnership Working in Sure Start Local Programmes: Synthesis of Early Findings from Local Programme Evaluations. London: Sure Start Unit
● Tunstill J, Meadows P, Allnock D.NESS research team (2005a) Implementing Sure Start Local Programmes: An in-depth Study. London: The Sure Start Unit
● Boddy J, Potts P and Statham J (2006), Models of Good Practice in Joined-up Assessment: Working for Children with ‘Significant and Complex Needs’. DfES Research Report RW79. London: DfES. Accessed 6 January 2007:
This article appeared in the 14 June issue under the headline “A new role in social work”