When social work managers in Manchester children’s services were invited to pilot a new leadership training scheme last year their initial reaction was, says Susan Butlin, “quite mixed”.
The local authority had not long been hit with an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating. Butlin’s own team, which dealt with initial assessments, was in the midst of an “incredibly busy” period, with hundreds of referrals coming in each month.
“So there were a few questions about what is this? How is it different from other training? Some people were thinking ‘I’m really busy, I’ve got loads of cases, this is going to put more demands on my time, is it worth it?” she recalls.
One year on, Butlin says her decision to take the plunge and apply to the Firstline programme is one of the best she’s made.
She was one of 37 social work managers across eight councils that took part in the pilot and credits the training with reinvigorating her passion for child protection.
Firstline, which is linked to the Frontline children’s social work scheme, is targeted specifically at first line managers in social work, including consultant social workers and team managers.
Over 10 months participants take part in three two-day residential courses involving coaching on leadership techniques, approaches to case work, handling difficult conversations and more. They also receive dedicated one-to-one support from a leadership development adviser and a series of practice development sessions in small groups.
Last week the government announced £3.7m of funding to expand the programme into other authorities. An evaluation of the pilot is expected to be published later this month.
‘I looked at the job a different way’
For Butlin, having some dedicated time and space to reflect on her management and her development made a “huge difference”. Taking a step back from the daily cut and thrust of the work, she realised that the pressure in child protection left a risk of both her and her team’s practice becoming “quite prescribed” and things just getting done the “way we had always done them”. Meeting others doing the same job helped her feel more supported too.
“When you get that time out, you realise not to take the job for granted. You look at it in a different way. The programme really helped slow me down a bit, to really think about what I’m doing, how I’m supporting the team. What are the habits I’ve got into?
“You also get to meet people all across the country doing similar work, facing similar challenges to you. You hear about how they’ve tried to address them, and what’s worked. It reminds you that you don’t have to be a boss of an authority to make changes that are better for the families that we work with, and for the workforce. I came away with a lot of concrete techniques and theories I could apply.
“The way I have conversations about families is really different now. I’m much more conscious about what I’m asking and what information I need. I’m much more actively asking social workers to think about their views on a case, rather than just asking me. The fact people were investing in my development also felt really significant.”
Gaps in support
Mary Jackson, Firstline’s leadership development director, says social work managers are a vital part of services but have suffered from not receiving the same investment and attention as other roles.
“There’s been a lot of focus on the social workers who work with families, a lot of focus on the importance of senior leadership and that being strong,” she says.
“But there just isn’t anywhere near enough focus on how you can enable these team managers to grow themselves and in the process ensure they have a fantastic offer for their social workers and the children and families they work with. That’s why I was excited to come and do this.”
Jackson took on the Firstline job after a period working with Morning Lane Associates – the consultancy co-founded by chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler that developed the ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ model. That model was based on a systemic approach to working with children and families. Firstline is based on similar principals, with several of its leadership development advisers having a background in systemic work.
Firstline has tried to design the three core elements of the programme around how people learn, says Jackson.
The residential element gives people “the content”, she says. It also gives participants the chance to become part of a cohort, with the peer support having proved “really, really powerful for people” who piloted the programme, says Jackson. The group sessions build on those links and offer space to discuss practice development.
‘It’s very different to supervision’
The intensive one-to-one coaching sessions offer managers some focused time to think about their own development with someone who “challenges them, pushes them and supports them”, says Jackson.
“It’s very different to supervision. It is essentially a mentoring/coaching relationship. It is not in any way linked to the outcome of individual cases. It is much more about deeper learning around relationships and behaviours and what drives managers.
“So they will bring the content. It will be about their development. It might be that I know I want to be a [more senior] manager in two years but I don’t know how to get there. Or I’m having a really difficult conversation with one of my social workers and I’m not sure how to manage it. So they’ll focus on that and debate it. There may be a bit of crossover with supervision, but it’s a very different set up.”
The Firstline team has been adapting the programme based on learning from the pilot phase, says Jackson, but one constant throughout the training is a focus on the “moral purpose and ethical value base” of social work.
“It’s reconnecting them with why they came into the profession in the first place. I think this particular group in the profession are very good at giving their energy and time to their social workers, but not always to themselves. It’s very challenging but the programme offers a chance for a bit of a reminder about what drives them.”
Butlin recognises this in her own experience: “It came at a really good point in my career. I’d been a social worker for 12 years, and a manager for four. I was at a point where I wasn’t exactly disillusioned with my work, but I’d almost lost a bit of focus on why I got into social work in the first place and what I was getting up every morning to try and do.
“It had become almost my 9 to 5, my day-to-day job. What the programme did is reignite my passion for working with families and doing child protection work, and also that desire to do the very, very best you can in every situation and not just rush into responses.”
‘We want to keep that energy to learn alive’
Butlin is now involved in the selection process for the next cohort of Manchester managers to start Firstline and is pleased to hear the programme will be expanding into other councils.
Jackson says Firstline is keen to involve participants after the course has ended. One thing she hopes will help is the network of support in place for Frontline and Firstline participants who have completed the programmes, including seminars and mentoring. The aim of the ‘fellowship’ offer is to help maintain the connections participants have built up.
“We know we need to work harder at making it stick. I know this is only as good as the difference it makes. It’s all very well to empower people, to make them excited and energised. That’s really valuable but if it doesn’t result in a change of actions at the end of the day, then it won’t have had the impact that we would want it to. We really want to keep that energy to learn alive.”