Last month a joint inspection report praised Bradford council for a focus on “getting the basics right” in social work practice.
So what do ‘the basics’ of social work look like and how has Bradford built on them?
For Michael Jameson, the council’s director of children’s services, one fundamental is making sure social workers and others in his services have a good understanding of the children and families they work with.
“Are you able to tell a story about where you’re up to with a child? What’s happening to that child? What is that child’s perspective? How are we making a difference?” he explains.
Getting that, says Jameson, involves essentials being in place: children being both allocated to – and seen by – their social workers in good time, multi-agency partnerships working well, assessments and interventions being timely.
That means making sure social workers have the right resources to do their jobs. Notably, inspectors found that Bradford’s practitioners had manageable caseloads and received regular supervision. Staff felt “well supported” to make a difference to children and families.
In the world of child protection, says Jameson, things can “go wrong very quickly” and councils can fall into trouble when “all those fundamentals aren’t working effectively”.
He says it’s vital for senior leaders to keep in touch with what’s happening on the frontline and what needs to be improved.
Bradford has worked hard to develop a culture of “no surprises”. Senior leaders at the council keep up-to-date with children’s services through monthly performance meetings. Frontline staff also meet lead councils members and the chief executive regularly to discuss issues they’re facing.
“It’s about visibility and what it’s like working in Bradford. What are the challenges? What are the rewards? And what are the enjoyable things? It’s about creating that dialogue and I think what we get…is that workload and social work is on the agenda on a regular basis,” says Jameson.
The updates are crucial, he says, and help political leaders and other senior members appreciate the difficult nature of social work. It also means if the council does need to change things or invest, this can been done “quite quickly”.
Another factor inspectors picked up as important to Bradford’s progress was the use of the Signs of Safety approach in services.
Jameson says the council took the step of engaging the “full partnership” in the model, rather than only social services. It was a risk, he says, given the extra cost involved, but it’s one that’s paid off by helping all agencies buy in to the approach.
“We’ve had 1,500 people – in a relatively short period of time, 12 to 15 months, go through the training programme,” Jameson says.
The inspectors found the training was delivering “early benefits” in helping agencies develop a shared understanding of risk and ways of assessing it. As a result, services were delivering a more coordinated response to families.
Bradford is now looking to build on these foundations. The Department for Education has awarded the council £3.2m to develop a new model of care for looked-after children. This will build on the ‘No Wrong Door’ project, a model of working with children and young people that has had success in North Yorkshire, and integrate Signs of Safety and attachment-based tools.
Bradford is also looking to use social impact bonds to improve support for young people with learning disabilities and prevent them entering full-time residential care.
Jameson says these projects are creating a culture of doing things differently, as well as getting the basics right. While he says it was good to see the inspectorates praise the council’s methods, the most pleasing findings from the report were the outcomes: “When social workers and partners are intervening in family life they are making a difference.”