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.
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.”