Defining our social work practice: how a council is building on 12 years of stability

Why a council is taking the step to brand its existing social work practice, rather than import another model

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Children’s services in East Sussex haven’t been restructured since 2006.

Although new elements have been introduced as child protection has evolved the foundation of East Sussex’s ‘good’ practice in the views of Ofsted has been an ever-evolving model of social work practice.

“We have made a conscious decision that we’re not going to be bringing in an outside model of practice, such as Signs of Safety or the Reclaiming Social Work model,” explains Nicola McGeown, principal social worker in East Sussex.

“Our vacancy rate is really low, we’re really stable, so we don’t necessarily need to have a prescriptive model that is going to be a manualised approach to social work, which I think if you are a local authority that is in trouble, that can be helpful,” she adds.

A multi-agency safeguarding hub and single point of access are the only structural changes made in East Sussex children’s services over the past dozen years. Its evolution has been towards a model of relationship-based practice, with motivational interviewing also embedded, but it still felt the need to define what it’s doing.

‘Speaking the same language’

“I’ve visited a lot of high-performing local authorities and the consistent thing that came back is that it really doesn’t matter what model you were using, you just had to make sure we were all speaking the same language and you had the same approach to understanding children and families,” McGeown explains.

At the start of this year, East Sussex launched ‘Connected Practice’, to redefine the way of working the service has developed over the years, as well as introduce new focuses on trauma-informed practice and mentalisation.

The immediate impact, McGeown says, has been giving the council’s model more coherence, and it has made it easier for practitioners throughout the service to better articulate the concepts of relationship-based practice it operates in, “whereas before we were just doing it in a kind of scatter-gun approach”.

“I wanted us to be able to clearly articulate what we meant by relationship-based practice in East Sussex, so we’ve consulted with some social workers, children and families, and in effect ‘Connected Practice’ is about really embedding relationship-based practice. It is the relationships throughout the organisation that ultimately effects the change.

“Those relationships have to be open, transparent, supportive, all of the stuff so that it gets cascaded all the way through into how social workers [work with families.”

‘Define and develop practice’

The foundations of being able to define the council’s own practice and develop it over time was through the stability of its workforce, McGeown says.

It has a low social work turnover and vacancy rate; social workers occupy senior leadership positions and there is a “comprehensive training offer” to ensure development is ongoing.

“We haven’t gone through a reconfiguration since 2006, and I think that’s massive. It means we’re able to focus on the quality of our practice, rather than restructuring and reconfiguring, and I think that is reflected in good Ofsted reports,” she says.

There is a consideration of things not becoming “stale”, so the council adopts elements of practice that are effective, such as embedding group supervision and practice development as well as incorporating motivational interviewing.

It has also built a relationship with the local university through a teaching partnership and has used the Knowledge and Skills Statements to do a learning needs analysis across the organisation to meet the standards outlined.

East Sussex’s success has been borne out in successive Ofsted judgements, which have found the council to be consistently ‘good’. The stability hasn’t been changed by ‘Connected Practice’, rather ‘Connected Practice’ is the result, McGeown insists.

She acknowledges the council is in a relatively unique position, but she says what has been crucial has been ensuring over the years that its model is “organic” and “constantly evolving”.

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