Patrick Botha, a social worker in Hillingdon gives a resounding thumbs-up to the transformation of its children and young people’s social work service, which has put the finding of a permanent solution for its looked after children at the very heart of its work.
He says: “We’re now able to concentrate on the real issues and deliver a better service. Our time has been freed up to allow us to do what we’ve been trained for – ensure vulnerable children have a better chance in life.”
That includes assigning a permanency social worker to work alongside the allocated social worker to identify the individual needs of each and every child in care. Together, they will consider all the options as well as the most suitable family for the child.
The west London borough is also bringing fresh thinking to its training practice and processes to support staff.
A new, reflective, supervision programme ensures front-line staff are supported to get vital decisions right first time. It encourages them to use their experience to rethink their practice and focus on the wider issues.
Managers are beginning to see the impact of the new model says Jane Golden, manager of the children with disabilities team. “In my own practice, I have used the framework when talking to staff about their uncertainties and anxieties when working with certain clients, rather than being task focused.”
But it’s not only training that has turned the team around. A radical overhaul of the adoption approval process has been introduced ahead of the government’s deadline, with the aim of speeding up the process.
Team members are now working closely with their counterparts in other west London adoption services to co-host public information sessions, resulting in more frequent events and a better response to potential adopters.
Hillingdon is committed to developing social work expertise and also has a clear framework for development and appraisal. It funds and supports all social workers to become members of the College of Social Work and has a strong partnership with local university, Brunel.
Designated principal social worker Paul Hewitt has been at Hillingdon for 24 years and feels that having a social worker in place in the senior management team demonstrates its commitment to front-line services.
He says: “We want to develop our social workers’ skills, passion and creativity and have developed a career pathway to reflect this at all levels. I have never seen such innovative, creative work as we are now putting into action.”
Social workers in Hillingdon are presented with some challenging opportunities and, with Heathrow Airport on its patch, those looking for a career in social work will have a varied caseload and tackle issues that they wouldn’t experience elsewhere.
And if that’s not enough, the borough is offering a £2,000 ‘market factor supplement’ as part of its recruitment drive to attract permanent staff. The forward-looking team has 20 more senior practitioners on its shopping list.
The transformation of children’s social work calls for maximum expertise at the front line and puts Hillingdon’s 362 looked-after children, 222 children on child protection plans and especially children at risk of sexual exploitation at the centre of service design and delivery.
The moves are designed to embed a sense of belonging in all these children and key to this is the provision of ‘early help’, recommended in the Munro report. This is reflected in the council’s Children’s Pathway Programme, which brings together all support services working with families.
Adopting a multi-agency approach from the outset is fundamental to supporting children and families to become independent by bringing together all the various internal and external agencies involved in the child’s care.
This means all the relevant agencies share information, allowing teachers, nurses, health visitors and other professionals to engage in the process – reducing delay and helping decision making.
External agencies are encouraged to take on joint responsibility for a child’s welfare. For example, a school identifying attendance issues or a health visitor having medical concerns with a particular child, would be encouraged to address these initially with the parent/guardian rather than referring directly to social services.
There is also greater emphasis and support from the children in care and permanency teams from the beginning of care, reducing potential drift for children whatever the outcome.
Social work ‘pods’
The introduction of ‘pods’ of social workers, specialist practitioners, a manager and a coordinator supported by a clinical psychologist allow easy exchange of knowledge, ideas, issues and experiences and ensure colleagues are familiar with each other’s cases.
The pod coordinator role releases the social worker from paperwork, allowing them to concentrate fully on their core role of improving children’s lives.
Social worker Michaela Smith from the children in care team says: “The pods are great. They help social workers gain a different perspective on an issue from other workers who have had similar experiences.”
Hewitt says: “Our staff are our best assets and, by liberating them from form filling through the pod system and releasing them from superficial issues through the multi-agency approach, we can enable them to concentrate on the real issues, deliver a better service, and do their absolute best for the children in our charge.”