Three years after they were proposed in the government’s Care Matters white paper, the UK’s first independent social work practices are now up and running.
Over the past three months, five councils in England taking part in the government-funded pilots have transferred responsibility for more than 1,000 looked-after children and care leavers to external bodies run by social workers and charities.
Staffordshire Council is testing the professional practice model, where social workers formerly employed by the authority have set up their own not-for-profit organisation in which they all have a stake.
Kent Council chose a model involving voluntary sector groups, and have a contract for services with children’s charity Catch22.
The government will monitor the progress of the pilots – the other areas are Hillingdon, Liverpool, Blackburn with Darwen, and Sandwell, where the launch has been delayed – before deciding whether to adopt the system nationally in 2012-13.
Community Care asked two of the teams how they planned to fulfil the scheme’s twin objectives of reducing staff turnover and increasing the stability of the child-social worker relationship.
Case study: Catch22, Kent
Budgets delegated, hierarchies simplified
After a tendering process, Kent Council commissioned Catch22, which has worked in partnership with the council for more than 10 years, to run its practice.
With 580 young people aged 16 to 24, the cohort is significantly bigger than the other pilots and split into four geographically-based teams; each with roughly 140 looked-after children and care leavers. When a teenager turns 16, he or she is automatically transferred to the practice.
Using a voluntary sector provider has immediate advantages. For example, the managerial hierarchy is less complicated than in local authorities.
The overall practice, which opened in December, is run by operations manager Sue Clifton, who reports to Mick McCarthy, area manager of Kent and East Sussex Catch22.
“We tend not to over-bureaucratise things, and we don’t have the same lengthy channels of communication,” says McCarthy.
“The operations manager doesn’t have to come to me in order to decide whether a young person ought to be placed in residential care, for example.”
On a day-to-day basis, budgets are delegated to the social workers and case workers.
“If a young person needs an immediate decision, provided it meets the needs that young person has as identified in their pathway plan, the social worker can approve it.”
This helped Catch22 to sell the practice idea to young people in the area because their social workers have more power.
The teams also have access to specialist mental health workers, an accommodation officer, Connexions workers and administrative staff from in Catch22’s existing pool of resources.
It might seem like a more fragmented approach than the professional model being tested in Staffordshire, but McCarthy argues the opposite. “If something needs to be done, the social workers can go to someone within the team rather than an external agency,” he says.
“Within a GP-style practice they’re going to have to refer on, as a GP does, to specialists.”
At a glance: Catch 22
● Model: voluntary sector provider
● Went live: 1 December 2009
● Run by: operations manager overseeing two team managers, each with responsibility for two teams. Each team comprises two to three social workers and two to three case workers.
● Responsible for: 580 looked-after children and care leavers, aged 16 to 24
At a Gance: Evolve YP
● Model: professional, practitioner-led
● Went live: 2 November 2009
● Run by: 10 board members
● Responsible for: 150 looked-after children and care leavers, aged 12 to 21
Case study: Evolve YP
‘We don’t spend all that time form-filling now’
Social workers in Staffordshire launched the UK’s first professional social work practice, Evolve YP, last November.
Fifteen people, including admin staff and a cleaner, run the practice, which offers services to 150 looked-after children and care leavers aged 12 to 21.
Although under contract to management at Staffordshire Council’s children’s services in Newcastle under Lyme, Evolve YP has its own offices in a different building.
Ten of the staff form a board of partners who own 52% of the practice in line with government rules. They include the practice lead, who acts as a link to the council, a senior practitioner, three social workers, four personal advisers and an office co-ordinator.
The practice has been live for only three months and evidence of this is everywhere; from the unfinished paintwork to the makeshift contact room where siblings of looked-after children can play. In an independent practice, staff are responsible for everything, including decorating. It’s a lot to take on.
“We’ve had floods, gas leaks, you name it – but we’ve all mucked in together,” says practice lead Donna Fallows. “We’ve had to deal with these issues as well as doing our day jobs and running the business.”
It has been a difficult journey. The board gave up their evenings and weekends in order to write the bid. None of them had any business experience to speak of. “It’s been a massive learning curve,” says Fallows.
However, most had already worked together in the council’s looked-after children and leaving care teams before transferring to the practice.
“In a way, the team chose itself, because we came together with the same vision,” says Tracy Dean, one of the personal advisers who provide young people with impartial information, advice and guidance. “We’ve got the utmost respect for each other.”
Everybody is responsible for their own caseload – the average is 15 for each social worker – but staff ensure work is shared out equally. “You aren’t just allocated a case,” says social worker Paula Beesley. “Allocations are discussed by the board and decided based on capacity and the needs of the young person.”
It’s a relatively flat management structure, but if there’s a dispute the final decision rests with Fallows, who holds a full caseload as well as being the practice lead.
The main advantage is that practitioners do not waste time chasing managers for a signature because board members can sign for each other. “All that time spent on filling forms, waiting for managers’ signatures – we don’t do that anymore,” says Fallows.
“We’re doing what we feel is right rather than thinking, ‘what would a manager say?’ or ‘what would the head of service say?’,” adds Beesley.
That’s not to say there’s less paperwork. Evolve YP must adhere to Staffordshire Council’s computer recording system, but staff agree that the set-up makes up for this. Beesley, Dean and Fallows are committed to creating a friendly environment for children – the words they kept coming back to during my visit were “family” and “home”.
“We want the kids to come and go when they want to,” says Fallows. “At the local authority it was quite impersonal. You had to come and discuss your business over the counter if there wasn’t a room available.
“But here they come in and everybody in the practice knows them.”
The opponents to social work practices
The ideology behind social work practices has split opinion. The West Midlands Social Work Action Network (Swan), for example, has called on social workers to boycott the practices because it believes professionals “are being misled by the official documentation that they will be able to develop closer relationships with children in their care”.
Swan member Simon Cardy also criticised the “bonus culture” that arose out of running independent practices.
One of the six practices – the pilot in Liverpool run by the charity PSS – has decided to offer staff performance-related bonuses.
Cardy says: “There is no evidence that social workers are frustrated entrepreneurs who need a profit motive or a bonus to do their best for children.”
But the practice members at Evolve YP, in Staffordshire, say they have “carefully considered” their business and management structure and unanimously decided to be a not-for-profit social enterprise.
“This will enable us to access additional funding to improve services to our young people,” they said in a joint statement.
“We agree that frustrated social workers do not need profit-making incentives and bonus schemes to motivate them to meet targets and certainly consider our own service model as a reflection of this.”
Evolve YP ready for launch