Something’s afoot in Hampshire. Across the county social workers are experimenting with new ways to work with children and families.
In Fareham and Gosport, they’re working collaboratively with families to create their own safety plans. In the New Forest, teams are discovering new strength-based tools to use with families; and in Havant, they’re challenging each other to use strengths-based language so that they focus not on reducing the number of children in care but on how best to keep children safely at home with their parents.
Bit by bit what these frontline social workers are finding is feeding into the creation of Hampshire’s new practice model – a model shaped by social workers and informed by an extensive evidence review.
Hampshire is developing its new model as part of its activities as one of the Department for Education’s Partners in Practice and, crucially, the model is designed to be ever evolving.
Social worker feedback
“In Hampshire we’ve not really ever said ‘this is how we do social work’,” says Alison Smailes, the strategic lead for transformation in children and families at the good-rated authority.
“Until now we’ve used an eclectic blend of different methods and ways of working. But it’s important for staff and families to have clarity and structure around what we do and why, so we want to use the new approach to build on the good work we already do, as well as what works nationally and internationally.”
Hampshire has spent much of the past year developing its new approach. It worked with the University of Winchester and independent social workers to examine the evidence of what works and what doesn’t in children’s social care practice. Then it asked its social workers to put those lessons to the test and provide feedback on what worked, what didn’t and whether those approaches could be done better.
“We didn’t want an off-the-shelf practice model,” says Alison. “Because we’ve never had a model before it was important to us that we created a model people could really sign up to.
“At first people were still in that traditional ‘just tell us what you want us to do’ mindset but now staff are quite excited about being involved in developing the practice framework. We want our social workers to have professional ownership and to contribute to the way they work with families.”
The framework those social workers are contributing to is now coming into focus as Hampshire’s new assessment approaches and strengths-based practice toolkits are rolled out across the county, but the authority sees the model as a malleable one rather than an inflexible set of policies and ideas.
Supporting newly qualified social workers
Last year Hampshire County Council launched its Graduate Employment Training Scheme (GETS), which gives newly qualified social workers unparalleled support during their first year in practice. There are four intakes onto GETS every year and the year-long programme starts with a month-long induction programme that eases them into life in Hampshire without any caseload pressures.
The next few months see the graduate trainees do placements in different social work teams so they get to see what it’s like to work in different parts of the children’s service. Then, for the final six months of the programme, they enter a vacant frontline social worker post and are supported to complete their assessed and supported year in employment.
“We know that quite often social workers in their first year of practice become overwhelmed so we created GETS to give them extra wraparound support as they start their career,” says Alison. “We’ve already had 93 newly qualified social workers join GETS and the feedback shows their confidence levels really increasing during the programme.”
“Our director of children’s services Steve Crocker describes it as the start of a journey which we are all on,” says Alison. “There’s not going to be a ‘Ta-dah!’ moment where we say, ‘this is what we will do forever more’. The model’s designed to grow, develop and improve as we learn.
“Our approach in Hampshire is based on core principles about our relationships with children and families but if, over the years, we find that the things we are doing are not effective, or there are more effective ways to achieve the same things, then we will incorporate that into our practice model,” she adds.
One of Hampshire’s big goals is to help more children safely stay with or return home to their families rather than being in care. The new practice framework is part of the answer but the council is also seeking to deliver on this by recruiting specialists to work alongside its children’s social workers in supporting families in multi-disciplinary hubs.
These specialists include staff dedicated to working with domestic abuse victims, domestic abuse perpetrators and alcohol and drug users. From early next year, there will be child and adult mental health workers supporting the teams too.
Intensive support for families
Alison says these specialists will also help Hampshire social workers to deliver better support packages including intensive support for struggling families on issues such as the ‘trigger trio’ of parental mental ill-health, substance misuse and domestic abuse.
“We’ve identified what we call priority cohorts: families where we know, from the research and information we have, children are more likely to end up in care,” she says. “Our intensive workers will work alongside our social workers with these families to allow more children to stay at home safely.”
Alison says this, coupled with the evidence-based approaches in Hampshire’s new practice model, should lead to better outcomes for all: “The effectiveness of what social workers are doing will be more likely to achieve what’s needed.
“I think we’ll have fewer families tipping into crisis because social workers will be able to call on the multi-disciplinary specialists and intensive workers to support families without the need to make referrals and for families to sit on waiting lists.”