‘Making evidence useful’: checking in on children’s social care’s What Works Centre

A year after work started on a best-practice centre aimed at supporting children's social workers, we ask how it will help them do their jobs

It’s a year now since work got underway in earnest to establish a ‘What Works Centre’ for children’s social care, aimed at supporting practitioners and managers by building an evidence base with which to inform best practice.

The centre, announced – in a different political age – back in 2015 under David Cameron, will form part of a network of 10 such facilities, which exist to improve how research is used to inform various areas of public policy and practice.

“The What Works Centre will have a sharp focus on improving outcomes for our most vulnerable children and families,” a Department for Education spokesperson said in May this year.

“The centre will bring together the findings of excellent practice in one place, including valuable learning from the [government’s] £200m Innovation Programme. It will also gather and commission research to make sure social workers across the country can learn from the very best evidence to help drive further improvements in the care of vulnerable children.”

Incubation period

In October 2017, social innovation charity Nesta won the contract to develop the What Works Centre, with Cardiff University being named as research partner the following month. The organisations are receiving £5 million of DfE funding each with which to ‘incubate’ the centre to March 2020, by which point it is meant to operate independently.

Candidate documents published in late spring, when the centre was recruiting for its founding chair – a post subsequently filled by ex-Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president Alan Wood – indicated some uncertainty over its future beyond that date.

They acknowledged the project is “laden with risk” and faced a “huge distance” between possible futures. “There is no clear template for a What Works project which, if followed, offers a good chance of success,” the documents said.

But the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), which is partnering Nesta in getting the What Works Centre up and running, downplayed any doubts.

“In terms of risks and barriers, there are always risks and barriers – as well as great opportunities to do things differently – when you are setting up a new organisation,” a SCIE spokesperson told Community Care in late April. “One of the main tasks of the incoming founding chair and board will be to manage the inevitable uncertainty, and identify and maximise opportunities.”

In the wake of Wood’s appointment in July, the What Works Centre announced that it was working with 21 ‘wave one’ local authorities to begin prototyping tools and services (see boxes) with a view to making these more widely available from 2019.

With the centre, which is hosting a session about its work at Community Care Live later today, also set to publish its first research findings soon, we checked in with representatives and local authority partners to see where things are at.

‘Understanding what research people want and need’

Talking to managers even from some of the councils involved with the What Works Centre’s projects, it’s clear that awareness among frontline practitioners of how the organisation’s work may benefit their practice remains uneven. We asked two of the centre’s representatives to provide some clarification on this point.

“The purpose of the What Works Centre is to make evidence available in a format that’s useful for frontline practitioners and managers, so they can use it in direct work or in planning services,” explains Louise Bazalgette, the centre’s principal research advisor, who is employed by Nesta.

She is working closely with researchers at Cardiff University around planning what kinds of evidence the centre will be producing, and how it will work on it with – and communicate it to – the sector. One key project is to create an ‘evidence store’, summarising learning from systematic reviews in an accessible format to provide knowledge on tap for practitioners.

“We want to understand what people want and need, and then create research in a way that’s easy to understand and access so they can use in their work,” Bazalgette adds. “We’ll be starting to publish research in November, on our website, that people can use.”

Measuring the new

In Wigan, the council is undertaking a project for the What Works Centre designing a self-evaluation tool for local authorities, and exploring via workshops and interviews how it could be used. It is the only council working on this task.

“We were asked to come up with an intervention we are working on – we are just putting in place Signs of Safety, so was it timely,” explains Susan Myers, the council’s practice director for children’s and families. “But to be clear, they don’t want us to evaluate Signs of Safety – that’s already been done – but its impact on frontline practice.”

A session with practitioners, at which What Works Centre staff were present, yielded a “very interesting discussion”, according to Myers, which highlighted how enthusiasm behind new practice models can easily be lost as time goes by.

“The impetus can wear out when it comes to evaluating learning, feeding that back into practice and make sure things have had an impact – and because we’re investing heavily in Signs of Safety I don’t want that to happen,” Myers goes on.

The council has until the end of the year to develop the tool, after which it can be tested out and, hopefully shared with and refined by others down the line.

“We’re keen that if we develop something that really works, and demonstrates how behaviour changes or skills improve, we’d be able to use it again and again, and then share with partners,” Myers says. “So it could go out to Greater Manchester [councils], to the 21 other pioneer partners and then eventually their learning could be shared nationally.”

Bazalgette’s colleague Anna Bacchoo, one of the What Works Centre’s practice development managers, employed by SCIE, has a more hands-on role. Bacchoo came into her position via the centre’s practitioners’ panel, after more than a dozen years as a children’s social worker at Brighton and Hove council, She says she’s enjoying being part of a three-person team that is getting out to the wave-one councils to work on their projects.

When we speak, she has just come from an hour spent with frontline teams at Walsall council, asking social workers about how they practice in an evidence-informed way and how the What Works Centre could come up with ways to improve that.

“The centre needs to be offering accessible, high-quality evidence relevant to their day-to-day practice,” she says. “We are carefully choosing [research] areas that are pertinent to frontline practice, finding gaps in the evidence base and making sure information is made available in an accessible way.”

Progress reports from two of the centre’s four priority research areas – on safely reducing the need for children to enter care, and supervision and decision-making – are due within weeks, as is an ‘insight report’ collating feedback around systemic issues within the sector.

Work with the wave-one authorities, meanwhile, which is split into generating research themes and co-designing practice tools, is expected to begin bearing fruit early in 2019.

Inclusive group

The wave-one councils have only recently begun work on their various projects, but managers and principal social workers we speak to say they are enthused by the diversity – both in terms of geography and Ofsted standing – of authorities involved at this early stage.

“What’s really good, regarding our bid, is that we were reinspected in November last year and are a two-time ‘inadequate’ local authority,” says Gail Hancock, service director for improvement at Buckinghamshire council. “You might think, ‘What have they got to offer?’ But the bids didn’t exclude councils on significant improvement journeys – that is appealing in and of itself.”

Like other partner authorities, Buckinghamshire has received a nominal sum of £5,000 for working with the centre – in its case, on developing training masterclasses around using evidence and research, a project that Bristol and Calderdale councils are also working on.

Making use of evidence

Walsall is one of a group of providers – including Greenwich and the tri-borough local authorities in London, Oxfordshire and Leeds councils, and Doncaster children’s trust – working to develop diagnostic tools to assess an organisation’s use of evidence.

“For us, it’s been an ideal opportunity because when the applications [were invited] we were about to embark on a transformation plan [meaning] whole-system change within children’s services,” says Isabel Vanderheeren, Walsall’s children’s services transformation lead.

“We’re really lucky to be one of two councils looking at the whole organisation – how we use evidence to make decisions strategically, but also operationally,” she adds.

While things are at an early stage, Vanderheeren says she envisions the tool as enabling the ability “to understand what steps we have to go through, and what the most important parts of those steps are”.

Developing it will incorporate interviews, observations, looking at data and documents, and a whole staff survey, all of which, according to SCIE’s Anna Bacchoo, will feed into a “brief document [that can] provide Walsall with some insight into where they are at with their learning culture.”

But Hancock says the work – which at her council will focus on team managers and assistant team managers – dovetails with a development programme already in place, and will form an integral part of Buckinghamshire’s path towards practice improvement.

“[Team managers and assistants] are what I call the glue in the system – ultimately they touch on all practice with children and families,” she says. “It’s very important they all understand, appreciate and can apply evidence in their practice – what works around supervision, in management, and what is most influential and helpful around improving impacts and outcomes. So [our work with the centre] has been blended in as one of the outcomes of a programme we already had put in place and, fortuitously, the timing is brilliant.”

Calderdale and Bristol are bringing slightly different emphasis to the project. “We are especially interested in developing a course for senior managers, to improve skills in using research and other forms of evidence to design systems,” explains Megan Swift, the West Yorkshire council’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services. “We are keen to ensure that the services created can accurately measure impact, so we want to develop a masterclass that incorporates evidence from research about the most effective way to do this.”

All three councils though say they are looking forward to working together to produce a prototype package, which can then be rolled over to a second wave of councils to further refine.

“We’re looking at January to have developed something, and tested it locally,” says Vanessa Catterall, Bristol council’s principal social worker for children and families. “We’re not sure yet how this will work – the next stage is to have a get-together [with partner authorities] – but this is an evolving, rolling thing.”

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