The government should support children’s social care innovation projects which involve operating outside of statutory duties until they can prove whether or not they are effective, researchers have said.
The final evaluation for the first wave of the innovation programme said national policy should “reflect the evidence on the efficacy of systemic social work”, and called for projects that required ‘deregulation’, or special circumstances to operate outside of statutory duties, to continue to receive support.
It also said that professional standards, training frameworks and inspection criteria should all be designed in a way to support systemic practice.
The evaluation reviewed the results of the 57 innovation projects funded by the Department for Education from 2014-16, though only 45 could report outcomes in the first evaluation period.
The projects split £110 million of government funding, with several being expanded in phase two of the innovation programme which began in 2016.
The evaluation found that all projects which had intended to reduce caseloads for social workers had been successful, but only a third of projects that measured the impact on social work turnover reported significant improvements.
As well as supporting systemic social work at a policy level, the report recommended that the government “continue and reinforce the current policy to support deregulation in order to allow a wider range of innovations”.
It added: “Projects engaging in deregulation need longer to be tested in order to be given a ‘fair trial’.”
Professor Judy Sebba, director of the Rees Centre for research in fostering and education at Oxford University and one of the report authors, said the report did not necessarily support deregulation, but was highlighting that the projects engaging in it were not able to report findings in the evaluation period.
“There was a number of projects that tried [deregulation], but because they took so long to set up, my argument is really that we don’t know whether they worked or not, so actually they need longer.”
Sebba said some of the projects were delayed or eventually stopped because there were nerves around participating in them.
“The message is that the deregulation takes time because people are nervous, it requires different legal arrangements, [therefore] it takes much longer to set up those projects on average.”
She added: “[Some] had only just started by the time the first wave was finished, so we can’t actually judge whether they are successful or not, so that’s why we suggested longer.”
The projects trialling this often involved an independent agency providing statutory services, Sebba said.
One of the recommendations made by the review team was that innovation projects should be given more time before evaluation in future.
The report’s practice recommendations included that local authorities should use a systemic approach, provide consistent support to parents and carers through key workers, provide high quality social work supervision, and maximise education and employment opportunities for children leaving care.
It found the quality of services increased in 42 of the 45 projects that reported outcomes. More than half of these reported reductions in the number of children in care and in those identified as children in need, and increased reunifications with birth families or de-escalation from child in need and child protection plans.
However, fewer than a third of projects reported positive improvements in staff knowledge, attitudes and self-efficacy, while one in five reported increased social worker job satisfaction and reductions in absence rates and use of agency workers.
The report said improvements could be attributed to the use of systemic practice that translated into high-quality case discussion.
Other findings that led to improvements were:
- Social work practices that maximise direct contact with families and young people and are flexible and reflective
- Social work supervision by clinicians or consultant social workers
- Specialist adult workers providing expert support and input to families
- Co-located multi-professional teams
- Consistent support to parents and foster carers through one main link person and high-intensity key worker support for young people
- Working with whole families experiencing domestic abuse with one key worker with small caseloads
- Co-design approaches to service development that enable young people to take responsibility for the services they receive
More than 20 projects reported cost savings because of the project, with Hertfordshire projecting £2.6 million in savings because of its family safeguarding model.
What Works Centre
The report came as the government announced that Cardiff University would be the research partner for the new What Works Centre, which will use the evaluations of innovation projects as part of its remit to share good practice.
Children’s minister Robert Goodwill said: “It’s encouraging to see the positive findings from the projects so far, many of which have already started to improve the lives of vulnerable children and their families.”
He added: “The What Works Centre will play an important role in building evidence to both help improve outcomes for children and deliver cost-effective innovation, and I am delighted that Cardiff University has been awarded the research partnership.”