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The Hackney model threatens to hinder social work more than it helps

Registered social worker Philip Measures reviews Social work reclaimed - a book detailing a “pioneering model” for overhauling social work…


“It has been sad to see over the decades how social work’s reputation has faltered and its workforce has lost morale,” writes Professor Eileen Munro in the foreword to Social Work Reclaimed.

It’s a view I share, along with the editors’ assertion that public accountability in social work has been sought “through an endless paper trail” rather than a focus on supporting families through evidence-based practice.


So I hoped that in this book the authors had discovered “the holy grail” to reverse these trends. The proposed way forward? The “reclaiming social work” model, also known as the “Hackney model” of social work.

In the authors’ words the model: “has completely redesigned who does what within the child and family social work system….trusting practitioners to use their professional judgement and skill in managing risk and keeping children safe.” That’s what we want and need isn’t it? So what is new here?

One size doesn’t fit all

Firstly the authors promote the McKinsey model of the 1980s, developed by the management consultants, as “a road map for change management”. You can read more about the model here.

I have real doubts that it is a good fit for social work, which is not a business. The McKinsey framework focuses on organisational factors. In my opinion, a more person-centred approach is called for.

Theory-wise the Hackney model draws on systems theory and social learning theory of the 1960s. It is described here as an “emphasis towards a relational frame and away from an intrapsychic one.” In plain English it neither attempts a treatment of ’causes’ nor of ‘symptoms’.

Sadly, this is where my hopes of an aspirational new way of working began to become dashed. If nothing else over a 40 year career in social work I have learned that one size doesn’t fit all.

It is potentially dangerous to ‘re-frame’ many problems via the environment and minimise attributing personal responsibility. We are the ‘products’ of many different influences – the main ones being not just environmental factors, but also genetic factors and nurturing.

To me, a parent with mild to moderate learning difficulties with no positive parenting experiences themselves and poorly educated hardly seems ‘ripe’ for the move from “a case management model to a systemic social work supervision one, which combines a reflective-type clinical supervision with a focus on risk assessment and management.”

Why? Because a quite high level of cognitive understanding is required which we have to recognise not everyone possesses or is able to benefit from.

We know the problems without having to ‘hypothesise’ (and the model lays great emphasis on hypothesising).  Unless we have the vast resources available to work with, support and protect such families then any intervention will just collapse.

I do not decry the benefits of systemic/social learning theory interventions but feel that they cannot be as universally applied as the book advocates.

The model’s impact in Hackney

The editors of Social Work Reclaimed, both formerly assistant directors for children’s social care at Hackney, have since left the council. Information released under the Freedom of Information Act in April this year showed that there were 20 vacancies in the borough, mainly at the consultant social worker level, that had been open for six months or more.

It seems to me that there is either a lack of money and/or inability to recruit to the ‘standards’ required by the Hackney model.

Questions remain 

On reading the book I’m left with a few questions about the reclaiming social work approach. If this is such a good model and provides significant answers to the difficulties facing local authority social work why has the government not funded and rolled it out nationally?

More long-term independent evaluation which both looks at results using this model and considers the impact on those who do not ‘fit’ into working within this systemic family therapy method is required.

My biggest concern, though, is whether this model really fits into the whole ethos and ethics of social work. Does it help to address the ‘real’ issues of inequality and personal struggle?

Social work intervention has to be all about balance. To shift significantly away from causes and symptoms and instead focus predominantly on environmental factors may just ‘hide’ rather than ‘heal’. Historically, Biestek saw the ‘casework relationship’ as being focal to effective change and resolution.

Why is it that what appears to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach is so superior to others?


And, finally, is there a danger that this is an attempt to ‘professionalise/academise’ social work that, if successful, will mean that we lose more than we gain?

Social work reclaimed: innovative frameworks for child and family social work practice is edited by Steve Goodman and Isabelle Trowler. The book is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 

Image: Flickr (sludgegulper) 

About Andy McNicoll

Andy is community editor at Community Care, with a focus on reporting on mental health. He has previously worked for titles focusing on the NHS and substance misuse sectors. You can contact him at