Building a team around the social worker: how a council is reducing demand and supporting staff

The 'Team Around the Relationship' model is built on supporting social workers to feel secure, so that relationships with families can become the main practice tool

Photo: Javiindy/Fotolia

Over the past four years, numerous councils, projects and charities have made bids for funding to the Department for Education’s £200 million Innovation Fund.

While many councils, projects and charities were backed with pots of money, many others were left disappointed. In 2014, Brighton was one such local authority that was unsuccessful in its bid for extra funding to help redesign its services.

At the time, the council had high numbers of children on child protection plans and in care. A year later Ofsted raised concerns over the number of social worker changes children were experiencing as it delivered a ‘requires improvement’ rating to the council.

There was significant use of agency staff, low morale among social workers, the quality of supervision and management was variable and the council’s internal auditing and surveying processes “gave a picture of social workers feeling they weren’t well supported”, according to Tom Stibbs, Brighton’s principal social worker.

The council felt the solution to this problem was moving towards relationship-based practice.

This model was built around the social worker, with the goal being that social workers’ relationship with families became the main practice tool to help families change, and that if social workers felt safe and secure in their work environment this would improve outcomes for families.

Despite not receiving Innovation Fund backing for its new direction, the council did it anyway and in October 2015 the council finished rollout of its new ‘Team Around the Relationship’ model.


Social work teams across the whole council were restructured into ‘pods’, which consisted of up to seven full-time equivalent social workers, a pod manager and a business support officer. Group supervision, which happened sporadically before, became an embedded part of the council’s supervision policy.

The Centre for Social Work Practice also helped the council introduce monthly reflective practice groups as an opportunity to provide emotional “containment” for social workers, and share good practice.

“We’re very aware what we could have done is say to social workers, ‘our practice is relationship-based practice and we want you to go and do it, and maybe here is some training to help you to do it’,” explains Stibbs.

“We don’t think that would have embedded sustainable change, what we had to do was say, ‘we’re introducing relationship-based practice, as part of that we are introducing these new teams to support you’.”

The ‘Team Around the Relationship’ model was born out of visiting other local authorities and other emerging models of effective social work services, such as the Hackney Model and Signs of Safety.

Affect change

Following this, the working group established to the develop the model concluded that focusing on social workers as “change agents” would help the council meet its goals of upskilling its workforce, improving the experience of children and families and supporting safe and stable family lives.

“We wanted to make social workers feel safe and supported. If they have a sense of containment, then they can build those relationships with families and use those relationships to affect change,” Stibbs says.

The changes were carried out within the council’s existing budget, Stibbs says, and while the innovation funding would have assisted with moving the children’s services into this way of working, it proved not to be required.


Last month, an internal evaluation led by the Model of Practice Working Group and supported by the University of Sussex started to identify progress being made as a result of the changes.

At the time of evaluation, there were 5.4% fewer families on children’s services’ caseloads, and there has been a 10% decrease in both the number of children in care and on child protection plans compared to when the model was introduced.

Families also said they had a better experience of social work, and social workers themselves felt more supported and able to make a difference to families – the key point of the model.

Stibbs also feels one of the successes of the process has been in showcasing what impact the PSW could have.

“It was my role as the PSW to lead on development, implementation and evaluation of the model,” Stibbs explains. While there were clear strengths in relation to how social workers felt supported by managers in the evaluation, this hadn’t yet translated to feeling supported by the organisation and senior leadership team.

Despite this finding, like many parts of this process Stibbs considers it a work in progress. The evaluation noted a comment from a pod manager praising his “exemplary” management of the “anxiety and uncertainty” about the changes as they were introduced. Stibbs views this as a good example of how relationships with senior management can develop, and how the PSW can bridge the gap between the frontline and senior leadership.


The evaluation, and Stibbs, both acknowledge the organisation still has a way to go.

Brighton remains an authority where the number of child protection plans and children in care are above local and national averages, and social workers told evaluators that the changes, while significant in some areas, hadn’t yet meant they were spending more time with families. This was mainly because of the ongoing burden of court work and report writing, the evaluation found.

Stibbs remains confident about the impact the changes have had: “We’ve done in-depth interviews with social workers, our version of the social work health check, surveys and audits. While there are inconsistencies across the system as social workers have different experiences, generally there’s a clear picture that social workers are feeling more supported and positive about the model.”

This impact has been felt in the council’s recruitment and retention of social workers. When the new model was introduced 20% of social workers in the council were agency. This is expected to be zero later this year, after a new cohort of newly qualified social workers begin.

Staff turnover has also reduced from 20.3% to 14.4% from 2014-16, and complaints from families have halved from 2014-15 to 2016-17.

In 2015, Ofsted called the model “coherent, with the right balance of care for social workers, relationships with families and performance management”. A peer review, carried out by the Local Government Association last year, also highlighted the “impressive” social workers and that the model was “beginning to make a difference”.

Going forward, Stibbs says the council will continue embedding the model, and the training and development that underpins it, to “help social workers see themselves as agents of change”.

“We wanted social workers to practice in a certain way, but in order to do that we had to change the way our service was designed, bringing in processes like group supervision, practice groups and build this idea around the culture of the organisation.”

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9 Responses to Building a team around the social worker: how a council is reducing demand and supporting staff

  1. Andrew Foster August 11, 2017 at 10:11 pm #

    Well, I need to confess that when I finished reading this article, having reflected upon what seems at best to be a self-congratulatory, toe-curling reinvention of the social work paradigm, I was obliged to
    check the date. I became increasingly unsettled when my ‘Great British Bake Off’ calendar confirmed that It was not April 1st. Yikes, someone, it seemed, had written the piece in all good faith. What is more, the proposition of ‘relationship-based practice’ had been implemented by a failing local authority, criticised for its ‘high number’ of children in care, unmanageable caseloads, unacceptable rates of staff turnover, the volume of service user complaints and most importantly, the number of children who were subject to child protection plans.

    I had just spent five minutes of my life consumed with bewilderment and confusion when instead I had hoped that my learning and knowledge base would be hugely enhanced. My benign and wholesome ambition was disappointingly not achieved.

    I read about ‘relationship-based’ social work practice, the ‘Team Around the Relationship’ model, helping families to change and improve familial outcomes. Oooooops, no mention at all about ‘keeping children safe’. I read about ‘pods’, which no doubt would reflect the hackneyed Ofsted ‘green shoots of recovery’ line. I was of the mind that it would only be a matter of a sentence or two before some kind of reference was made to Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock’s water features.

    I was intrigued by the concept of a ‘pod’, to the extent that I checked its meaning. I became further confused when I saw that a ‘pod’ was described as ‘an elongated seed vessel of a leguminous plant such as the pea, splitting open on both sides when ripe’. A different definition referred to a ‘pod’ being ‘a narrow-necked purse for catching eels’. Of course, I must be so stupid’!

    Social work teams, pods, relationship-based practice and ’emotional containment’ (sic) for social workers and so-called upskilling of social workers by referring to them as ‘change agents’…… I in a dream. ‘Hello Mrs Smith, I am phoning from the pod to advise you that I am your new ‘change agent’….no, it’s not a new washing detergent…..and before you ask, no, I am absolutely clueless when it comes to water features’.

    So, was it all just a horrible reality which I had created? Well, maybe, although I had an intense Daliesque dream that night about smoke and mirrors. Most odd!

    Brighton, I really do hope that children are safer and better cared for in your Authority, I really do. I am hopeful too that the ‘relationship -based’ model has simply been very poorly explained in the article. Support for practitioners is generally found through excellent leadership, management and vision, where legislation in fact, as ever, continues to define and underpin the authority of social workers throughout each and every contact with children and families. Social work does not need ‘pods’ and let us be clear, outcome – focussed social work has always been about the quality, integrity and authenticity of service user/practitioner relationships. So, I for one can do without ‘pods’……don’t get me on to talking about ‘hubs’!

    • Eric Evans August 16, 2017 at 9:28 am #

      I had my final practice placement as a student at Brighton. I do understand your confusion about this model and the ‘pod’ system. This article does not really provide enough detail to enable readers to understand it. While I do not understand why they use the term ‘pod’, the loose description is a team of at least 7 FTE social workers led by a manager; the team has senior social workers, social workers, and NQSWs. When a social worker picks up a case from the referrals team, this same social worker will do the assessement, take the case to conference (if it needs to be), work with the family, take it to court proceedings (if needed), and work with the children if they become looked after. The same worker remains with the family throughout, as opposed to a situation where the family is handed over from one social worker to the next at different stages of their involvement with Children’s Services. This article does not explain it well.

      • Andrew Foster August 16, 2017 at 3:12 pm #

        Eric, perhaps you ought to have written the article. Your description chimes very much with Hackney’s reconfiguration of Children’s Services and their ‘Reclaiming Social Work’

  2. Tony Stanley August 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

    Excellent example of PSW in practice leadership, Great work.
    PSW as researcher, teacher and active practitioner. Evaluation and ethnography skills all utilised.

  3. Andrew Foster August 15, 2017 at 12:46 am #

    Tony, in the words of that bloke in the 1980’s who could play a bit of tennis….you cannot be serious?!

  4. Lisa Birchall August 19, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    “Window dressing” and social workers being placed in pods does not indicate that necessary changes have been made to ensure safeguarding children.

  5. Robyn Kemp September 7, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    While I understand the scepticism, please suspend judgment before reading the full reports, both of which paint a full picture with both positives and areas for further development researched and identified.

    Relationship based reflective practice is gaining more traction as the body of evidence of its effectiveness for users of services, practitioners and organisations grows. Social work is often criticised for being too quick to judgment – relationship based practice does many things, including inviting us to more deeply consider what’s in front of us. Both our evaluation and that of the University of Sussex can be accessed here