Stress-busting Hackney model under threat from cherry picking councils

Evaluation praises Hackney model for reducing social work stress, amid claims of an 'uphill battle' to recruit skilled consultant social workers across the country

Social workers who use the ‘Hackney model’ of children’s social work are less stressed than their colleagues, enjoy their work more and suffer less violence and aggression from parents, according to an evaluation of the Munro-backed approach.

The evaluation, published by Professor Donald Forrester of the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care at the University of Bedfordshire, also concludes social workers who use the model spend more time with families and have greater confidence in their assessments.

Even more impressive is that Forrester admits he and his team started the in-depth study with some scepticism about the model, but have been converted to its benefits compared to the traditional linear model of social work teams.

The Hackney model, called Reclaiming Social Work (RSW), consists of small teams, called units, made up of social workers, therapists and administration staff who share a caseload. The teams are led by consultant social workers who combine frontline practice with leadership and supervision of the rest of the team. Social workers use and adapt systemic family therapy to help them build relationships and achieve change within families.

“One of our researchers commented during the study that if we were starting child protection from scratch and comparing Reclaiming Social Work with conventional children’s services, there is no question that you would opt for the systemic unit model,” Forrester told Community Care.

Variations in implementation and approach

The RSW model was previously praised in an evaluation by Professor Eileen Munro and the London School of Economics, and also featured in her recommendations to improve the child protection system in England.

Munro on management

Professor Eileen Munro will address Community Care’s forthcoming conference on supporting managers in social work. Register now for the event on 17 September in London.

Yet, despite such positive and respected evaluations, there is also scepticism about the model and variations in the way it is being implemented. 

Morning Lane Associates, a consultancy established by Steve Goodman and Isabelle Trowler, who invented the system, report they are currently working with 30 of the 152 local authorities in England. But many of those are implementing elements of the system, rather than adopting it whole-heartedly.

Croydon council, for example, told Community Care that while they have not adopted the model “our own service development is significantly informed by it”, while Stoke-on-Trent has devised its own version of the model.

Goodman admits that such cherry-picking can be problematic, particularly if councils neglect to implement some of the vital elements. When results are not what they hope for, they blame it on the model, he says.

“I’m aware of some councils who simply rearranged their social workers into units and expected that in itself to bring change which it can’t,” he says. “Essential is lowering caseloads right from the start. You cannot even consider this kind of intensive working without a council taking responsibility for the number of social workers they need to make sure all children are being adequately protected.”

‘Uphill battle’ to recruit consultant social workers

Community Care understands that even in Hackney itself there are problems. Following Goodman and Trowler’s departure from Hackney, some social workers in the borough feel the new management team does not understand the system as well, nor what it needs to work. The council has also consistently struggled to recruit enough consultant social workers.

Goodman agrees that recruiting enough highly skilled social workers to work as consultant social workers has been an uphill battle across the country and says there are a variety of reasons for this.

“There are plenty of good social workers around but the perceived way for them to progress their career is to go into management. Consultant social workers need to be paid at least as well as team managers to keep those social workers in practice.”

He also points out that the current systems for educating and training social workers do not fit with the systemic family therapy idea. This needs to change before the system can really take hold, he adds.

Claims that model ‘cannot handle organised child abuse’

Liz Davies, reader in child protection at London’s Metropolitan University, claims there is evidence the government has been heavily influenced by such arguments.

“I attended an event about the curriculum for Frontline – the government’s project to fast-track already degree educated professionals wanting to become social workers – and it is entirely based on the Hackney model,” she says. “Then Isabelle Trowler, one of the founders of the Hackney model, is appointed as children’s chief social worker. On top of the backing it had in the Munro report, it just feels like it is being forced down our throats.”

Davies dislikes the model because she believes it cannot handle organised child abuse, such as child trafficking and sexual exploitation, because its emphasis is on keeping a child with its family “at all costs”.

Risthardh Hare, head of children’s social care access at Cambridgeshire, who has previously worked at Morning Lane associates, agrees RSW does have faults, including the risk of social workers becoming ruled by optimism about families, but says good supervision should keep it in check.

Hackney model ‘encourages reflective practice’

“And the model has real strengths because it is safer and more effective. A unit is holding a case, which encourages reflective practice, and intervention starts from the first knock on the door instead of assessment after assessment.”

Hare says Cambridgeshire has also had success in “growing their own” consultant social workers. “If you can identify good social workers who are signed up to the model and then really support them for two years then I think that’s the key to filling posts.”

He also adds that perhaps the best part of the system is the fact it makes provision for the administrative and business support that frees up social workers. “I talk to other social workers and hear stories of it taking them two days to fill in forms to approve tiny amounts of money. That’s not what they should be doing. RSW has faults, but it’s so much better than what we currently have that it has to be worth pursuing.”

Forrester agrees, saying the most important thing about RSW is the fact that it challenges the “brittle” systems that dominate children’s services. This includes organisations often leaving social workers to deal with difficult and traumatising cases on their own with very little support.

Related articles

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

Munro plaudit for Hackney’s Reclaim Social Work model

Munro adviser who transformed children’s services in Hackney named chief social worker

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.