Just over a year ago, we started the change programme in the London Borough of Hackney’s children’s social care. Our aim was to move from a social work service based on the traditional team model to a framework with the social work unit at its centre. Each is led by a consultant social worker who practices within, and also manages, a small unit which jointly provides a service to families.
Looking back on the first year of the change programme, can we confidently say that we are succeeding in reclaiming social work? What has changed for children in Hackney? Work has begun on an independent evaluation which will tell us more. In the meantime, some clear messages have already emerged.
First, there is no doubt that two heads (sometimes four) are better than one. The weekly unit meeting, a forum for discussions and case planning for every child known to the unit, has encouraged creative problem-solving and clear allocation of tasks. Staff are reporting that thanks to the shared ownership of the workload, plus the benefit of seeing families through a clinical lens, the pace of work, and change in families, is happening faster.
In the words of one consultant social worker: “Although we are busy I feel less anxious, we are all working with the families, so everyone knows what’s going on – there is a real sense of shared responsibility.”
Second, the skill mix of the units has had a positive effect. The children’s practitioners, (non-social work qualified staff), have brought a range of experience in working with children and have exceeded expectations. The unit co-ordinators have been influential in freeing up time for other members to work with families, and in promoting efficient units. Having clinicians available and able to work with families right from the first visit has been hugely helpful – they keep the focus on the family as a system, not just the child, where the problem/difficulty is often thought to be located.
As expected, there have been some real tensions in joint working and in meshing the approaches within one small unit, and it has been exciting to be part of a genuine willingness to understand and work through these clashes of culture.
It’s early days and alongside the positive messages, there is an acceptance that there is some way to go. The senior managers here have said right from the start that this would be a three-year programme, which is proving to be an accurate statement. In particular, there is more to be done to streamline the systems and devolve responsibility and professional autonomy to the social work units – you can’t turn round years of central control and micro-management in a few months.
Over recent years social workers across the country have reported that they felt deskilled and constrained by the dominant prescriptive approach – the belief that they can’t make professional judgements without being told how to do it by a detailed manual, or by following a form which lays down even the actual questions that they should ask families in their own front rooms.
What continues to be motivating for staff in Hackney is the recognition of the complexity of the social work task and role, and evidence of the beginnings of a framework which will enable staff to function at a high level and give them permission to stretch their intellectual abilities and make the very best use of their practice wisdom.
Clare Chamberlain is a freelance consultant and is managing Hackney’s change project
This article is published in the 17 July edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “Let’s end central control and the deskilling of social workers”