By Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
This is the first of four articles, to be published over the coming weeks, on the state of children’s social work.The reflections will cover social work within and outside local authority children’s social services, but there will be a particular focus on statutory children’s social work as this is now such a challenging and contested arena.
This week the focus is on recent developments in models of social work practice and organisation.
Learn from the past
Models of social work practice are and should continue to be the subject of reflection, review and refinement. There should always be the aspiration to learn, to improve and to be more effective. Yet remembering the learning from the past to assist in shaping the future should be a central element of this.
For example, it sometimes surprises me how little is now known about the powerful research from the 1980s on brief and extended, short-term, task-centred casework.
How social work services are organised is also vital. Organisational structures can support good practice but they also have the power to undermine it.
Different organisational arrangements
Again, remembering the past whilst planning the future is likely to be of benefit. The past four decades have seen a number of different organisational arrangements such as community social work, generic neighbourhood and patch-based teams, multi-agency working such as youth offending teams (YOTs) and teams to identify and tackle sexual exploitation.
Currently there seems to be a trend towards the differential allocation of work based on practice and legal case definitions (initial response, assessment, children in need, child protection, looked after children, and leaving care teams).
Work flows versus continuity for children
I have some concerns about this latter arrangement. While it may help with the management of work pressures and work flows to have separate teams for different stages in a child’s “journey” in social services, it also poses the danger of frequent changes of worker. This undermines trust and relationships with children and adults and risks losing sight of their history.
There will always be inevitable changes of social worker for a family – people change jobs or employers, have maternity or sickness leave, retire or are made redundant or switch teams because of frequent big bang organisational restructurings. But organisational arrangements should aim to minimise the number of social workers for children and families.
There are a range of organisational models currently being developed and promoted. I have been much impressed, for example, with the intensive and wide-ranging work of multi-professional and multi-agency ‘troubled families’ teams.
I can also see promise in the mainstreamed multi-professional teams being introduced in at least two council areas designed to recognise and respond to the ’toxic trio’ of drug and alcohol misuse, domestic violence and severe acute and chronic mental health difficulties.
Reclaiming social work
The ‘Hackney’ model (‘Reclaiming Social Work’) is particularly well promoted currently. Organisations are arranged into small work groups. Each of these units or ‘pods’ are led by a consultant social worker who is the case holder, assisted by the team. The consultant social worker also manages and supervises the other members of the unit – which could include another social worker, family therapist, unit administrator and maybe a children’s worker.
Composition of the units varies across councils, but the key ingredients seem to be a case-holding consultant social worker and a work group with its practice informed and underpinned by a systemic family therapy model.
I was much impressed by this structure. The aspiration to reclaim space for direct practice with families was inspiring. I still have on my office desk and wall the Reclaiming Social Work mug and bag given out at conference exhibitions.
But as with any innovation, watching out for unintended consequences is as important as recognising and celebrating benefits.
I have worked in two local authorities where the Reclaiming Social Work model led to service implosion. I also have knowledge of two other authorities which explored the model but determined it would be too expensive to introduce or too insecure to roll-out after having piloted it in one area.
I freely admit my experience of the model is skewed and I would not use it to deny the model’s potential benefits, which were recognised by Eileen Munro in her report on child protection in 2011. But the experience should cause us all to reflect on and evaluate the idea that a model of small work groups could lack resilience and sustainability.
Challenges to capacity
Here are some examples I have seen:
If one or two members of a small work unit are absent or posts are vacant and the capacity of the unit is severely challenged.
In two areas I know of, consultant social workers as the case holders had caseloads of over 60 and approaching 80 children, causing them considerable stress.
The consultant social workers also end up spending a significant proportion of their time in court giving evidence in care proceedings because they are the case holder. This leaves little time for supervision of other members of the unit or to see and keep themselves informed about other children and families for which they are also the case holder.
Be ready to re-route or fine-tune
So, some learning from the past and from today which is likely to be of relevance for the future:
- There is a tendency in social work, as elsewhere to follow fashion. Lessons already learnt are ditched in favour of a new magic potion.
- We should always be striving to improve but also stay reflective. We should avoid being paralysed by doubt and uncertainty but also retain some scepticism.
- Even when committing to new arrangements watch out for unintended consequences. When they occur, be ready to re-route or, less disruptively, fine-tune.
Practice models promote coherent and consistent practice
Practice models provide a sensible and necessary framework for thinking and avoid the waste and dangers of unstructured, purposeless and chaotic activity.
Practice today is generally much more coherent and consistent than several decades ago. The days of ‘social work support’ with no clarity about what it was or what a home visit sought to achieve are largely long gone.
Practitioners are more conscious of their actions and goals, more confident to be assertive when necessary, and with a greater agency focus on quality and performance.
…but are not a slavish rule book
But practice models, whether relationship-based, strengths-based, systemic or any other model, are a just a framework. They should not be a slavish rule book.
Practitioners still need to be investigative, intrigued and imaginative about what is happening within families and households. They should be asking what happens for children and adults when the social worker is not in the room. They should always be alert to the dangers, even when seeking to help families change. Whilst working with adults they should also ‘think child’ as well as ‘think family’.
It is a task requiring considerable intellectual competence, professional confidence and emotional strength. It also requires time and space for assisted review and reflection through supervision, consultation and conversation with colleagues.
Calm continuity vs excitable leadership
Good practice also means building a continuity of knowledge and relationship with children and families, trust and respect with other professionals and agencies, and an awareness developed over time about community networks, strengths and weaknesses.
None of this is assisted by rapid and frequent organisational churn and by leadership which is too excitable. Calm continuity builds stability and security, and is more likely to give space for practice and reflection than the distraction of recidivist major change.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. A social worker and former director of social services, for two days each week he oversees child protection improvement in areas rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. His most recent book, The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, was published in July 2014 by Policy Press.
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