How Hackney has replaced social work teams with ‘units’

The London Borough of Hackney has been replacing conventional social work teams with smaller units, with the aim of increasing practitioner time spent with clients. Lauren Revans reports

Hackney’s reorganisation of its children’s services over the past three years has been described as both “radical” and “little more than common sense”.

Under its Reclaiming Social Work banner, the north east London council has gradually been replacing its traditional children’s social work teams with small networks of professionals known as social work units. Each unit is led by a consultant social worker, supported by a social worker, a children’s practitioner, a clinician and a unit co-ordinator.

The aim of the reorganisation was to tackle head on the age-old complaint of social workers spending too much time on paperwork and not enough time working directly with families.

Since details of the programme were published in 2007, Hackney has set up 42 social work units, recruited personnel for a further three, and wants to create another five after that, taking the total to 50 (two more than originally planned).

Isabelle Trowler, assistant director for children’s social care, says recruiting the consultant social workers (CSWs) to lead the units has been the biggest challenge. Of the 45 CSWs appointed to date, only nine were successful internal applicants, with the rest coming from outside the organisation – and, quite often, from outside the UK. “We’ve really had to hold our own and make the right decisions on those appointments and that’s been the hardest thing,” Trowler says. “If you don’t get these decisions right, then you’re done for.”

Each unit works in a specific service area – access and assessment, children in need, looked-after children, adoption, family support or disabled children’s service – and has a unit caseload of between 30 and 60 cases. Ultimately, though, it is the CSW who is responsible for all the unit’s cases, and it was quickly discovered that new CSWs needed intensive management support during their first three months in post.

“There’s a tipping point, after which the consultant just flies,” Trowler says. “But there’s that induction period first where you really have to take care of people. It’s a new role, and it’s about them developing and growing into that role and being able to take responsibility for what we need them to take responsibility for.”

From the start, the programme had very clear goals around reducing bureacuracy, increasing practitioner confidence and shifting the balance away from assessment towards direct intervention. Evidence suggests Hackney’s new social work units are starting to deliver.

Although a second evaluation report from the Human Reliability Associates and the London School of Economics is not due to be published until later this year, their first report, published in March 2009, was largely favourable. In particular, it found that, when compared with more traditional social work teams, social work units had a more positive culture, a better balance between meeting performance targets and direct work with families, a higher level of critical reflection, and a greater perception of professional autonomy.

Trowler also adds that they have seen “an amazing surge in positive comments” from families and local partners. She is adamant that everything Hackney is doing can be replicated elsewhere at no extra cost, providing savings are made in areas such as agency and commissioning costs which can then be reinvested.

The intense competition for each job at Hackney could be proof in itself of the growing belief at practitioner level in what the council is trying to achieve. If feedback from the evaluation team and imminent Ofsted inspections is as positive as the council anticipates, we may soon start to see other councils following in Hackney’s footsteps.

CASE STUDY: Jessica Markwart: consultant social worker

‘The mundane tasks have been taken away’

Trained in Australia, Jessica Markwart joined Hackney children’s services in January 2008, just as the first social work units were being launched. In January 2009, she successfully applied to become a consultant social worker leading one of the council’s 12 access and assessment social work units.

For Markwart, the main benefit of the unit model has been the level of support she receives. “In the old-style social work teams, you worked very independently and there was a lot of pressure on you. In the units, you feel very supported – not just emotionally, but also around decisions you make.”

Despite being ultimately responsible for up to 40 cases at a time now, she says it feels like a shared responsibility. Her stress levels are lower than when she had a caseload of 15-20 families under the old system. She is adamant that there is also less bureaucracy. “The really mundane, lengthy tasks have been taken away,” she says. “`I’m not spending hours on the phone chasing things. The unit co-ordinator does all that.”

Measures of success

● 1,403 people applied for 142 social work unit posts.

● Staff sickness rates have fallen from an average 15.66 days in 2006-7 to 8.93 days so far for 2009-10.

● Use of agency staff has fallen from around 40% to 26.6%.

● There are 314 children in care today compared with 470 in 2006.

● Unit co-ordinators and children’s practitioners are choosing to embark on social work training. Trowler predicts they will be the CSWs of the future.

● The units have become multidisciplinary “learning hubs”.

More first-hand accounts of Hackney’s reorganisation 

The idea behind consultant social workers 

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