The Children’s Workforce Development Council has taken the lead in remodelling social work. Camilla Pemberton spent a day on North Tyneside to investigate one of its pilots
High caseloads and low morale are corrosive elements attacking children’s social work nationally. But for some social workers in North Tyneside the picture is different. After years of experiencing the limitations of statutory social work, Avril Gordon, Helen McLester and Joanne Aitchison say they are now “finally doing what social workers are trained to do”.
They are taking part in a pilot project, commissioned by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) in January 2008, to “remodel social work”.
The CWDC is supporting 11 local authorities in England to pilot new ways of delivering social work. The aim of each pilot is to enable social workers to spend more time on the frontline, increase recruitment and retention, increase job satisfaction and improve the standing of social work. The pilots are funded for three years, until March 2011.
The pilots were initially proposed by the CWDC after councils published alarmingly high statistics for social work turnover and vacancy rates in 2007-8. Since the publication of the Social Work Task Force report, interest in the pilots has increased as policy-makers search for better ways to organise social work nationally.
In North Tyneside the pilot has focused on prevention and early intervention. Social workers were integrated into a multi-disciplinary team based in Carville Primary School.
Teachers in the school are using the common assessment framework (CAF) to undertake initial assessments. Experienced social workers working alongside them can then build on that.
Paul Cook, head of safeguarding at the council, points out that the service strives to be non-stigmatising for families. This means that far more people are prepared to engage with social services, enhancing workers’ preventive capability.
“We wanted the service to be a part of the universal provision,” he says. “In this way the community is able to ‘own it’ and make use of the service it provides.”
Gillian Quille, one of the pilot team managers, says that, initially, some practitioners felt it wasn’t right that the most experienced social workers set in preventive services.
“It often tends to be unqualified family support workers providing this service,” says Quille, “but we believe it makes a real difference to have experienced social workers working in these settings. People have since realised that the level of risk and need these families present is still very high. We are doing in-depth work with vulnerable families who, had they gone through to safeguarding, wouldn’t necessarily have had this level of service.”
Quille says that social workers were at first reluctant to be part of the pilot, worried that it would be “just another time-limited initiative”. Recruits were finally won round with the security of non-fixed term contracts.
Although the services will be monitored closely during the current difficult financial climate, Quille says the aim is for them to continue.
Find out more about the CWDC at https://www.communitycare.co.uk/cwdcfind
The social workers’ view
Avril Gordon: “We are working in the way that social workers were intended to. I spend much more time with families because I’m not stuck behind a computer doing admin. In a statutory team you’re able to visit families once every three weeks, if you’re lucky, but within this team I can give families exactly what their needs demand. If that’s three times a week I’ll go out three times a week. It helps families to move on more quickly: the early intense support gives them confidence so they are more able to sustain changes.
“The timescales in statutory social work don’t allow you to build relationships with families, but this way of working does. In the statutory sector we’d expect families to respond to us and take our advice within a couple of days of meeting them, but now we can build up that trust slowly.”
Helen McLester: “In the statutory sector you’re so bogged down with red tape but here we have the time to use the skills we were trained in. This means a lot of the work we do, we do ourselves rather than signposting out to other services. It makes us a really swift and responsive service for children and families. It’s what we came into social work to do and it gives us more room for creativity and training opportunities.
“But the biggest difference is that it’s all voluntary. Families aren’t driven by child protection plans and forced to undertake the work, they come on their own. There’s less stigma and it’s changed families’ perceptions about social workers. Families actually want to engage with us; they’ve recognised that they need support and they now see that we can help with a really broad range of needs.”
Joanne Aitchison: “Our caseloads are lower on this team so we can respond quicker to families, for instance by returning phone calls and researching things for them following a visit. We’re not getting back to them days or weeks later. In statutory, you’d have so much to prioritise, so sometimes the little things, which are big things for families, would be forgotten.
“We are able to do intense one-to-one work with a young person to help them manage their anger or with a victim of domestic abuse.”
The client view
Two years ago, Jane* and Barry* became the guardians of their grandson Steven*, 15, after his antisocial behaviour became too much for his mother, who has mental health problems.
Avril Gordon visits Jane and Barry regularly and helps them to understand and manage Steven’s behaviour as well as help him achieve his goals and stay out of prison.
Jane says this intensive support has changed her perception of social workers. “Before, I wouldn’t let social workers into my house. I thought they were just there to split up families. But Avril listens to what we have to say. Rather than just telling us what is happening, she explains her thoughts or advice. Without her, Steven would be in care.”
Barry says Steven’s behaviour has “changed 100%” since Avril began preventive work with the family. “Avril got to the bottom of why Steven behaves like he does. I’ve had to change my way of thinking and not react to him. I’ve also learned not to threaten him with social workers or treat them like the bogeyman.”
* Not their real names
The pilot is undergoing evaluation, but Cook says the early signs are encouraging. “Staff report high levels of satisfaction and users have also spoken of their appreciation and support of the team. They’ve also said they have sought help when perhaps they would not have done before.”
The team receives referrals through various routes, but the largest group of referrers is families themselves. Keith Brumfitt, CWDC strategy director, says this shows a positive cycle. “The more families experience the benefits of social workers, the better their role is appreciated and the more families refer themselves.”
Published in the 8 April edition of Community Care 2010 under the heading ‘Taking the stigma out of social work’