There’s excitement in the air within Hampshire County Council children’s services. After two years of careful preparation, the department’s Transforming Social Care programme is about to become reality.
The programme will see the department and its staff embrace a new strengths-based approach to practice that’s been built on extensive research and consultation with social workers, children, families, academics and partner agencies.
“We’ve taken our time on this and gone about it in a really considered way,” says Steve Crocker, director of children’s services. “We’ve taken the time needed to think about how and why we would change the service and to ask how the changes will improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families.
“We’ve also spent time talking to social workers, managers and service users about their experience of children’s social care and asking them how we can do it better.”
Stuart Ashley, assistant director of children’s services at Hampshire County Council, says the move to more strengths-based practice is an important one.
“By our very nature social workers – and I include myself in this – want to fix things, but sometimes we’re not best placed to solve the problems families have,” he explains. “So, our approach is now much more about empowering families to begin to help themselves in different ways. It’s about unlocking some of the great potential that all families have and all children have.
“One simple example is we’ve been working with a family that has been quite reluctant to engage with social workers. But just by having a photo of the child in the room and having social workers talking about the great qualities of that child, the family are now engaging with us.
“And that’s come just from taking that very different, child-centred but strengths-based approach. The early feedback about the new approach from our social workers and frontline managers has been incredibly positive and I’m really, really excited about it.”
The introduction of the new operating model is backed with new toolkits, overhauled assessment forms and a rethink of how meetings work. Changes all designed to ensure that the strengths-based ethos becomes front of mind in Hampshire, in social work teams and beyond.
“We’re also working with partner agencies on this because they are a key part of it,” says Stuart. “It is a cultural change and it will take time. We are realistic and we know there are no quick wins – it’s a question of us working hard to embed the new way of working.”
“It’s not the kind of change where one morning we will wake up and say, ‘It’s done’. It’s very much an on-going and iterative process.
“We’ll keep adapting the approach in response to what social workers and families tell us, but we’re absolutely convinced that this approach is going to make a real difference to how we deliver social work in Hampshire.”
It helps that Hampshire County Council is already building on very solid foundations. Ofsted rates children’s social care in Hampshire ‘good’, with outstanding features, and the service’s reputation is such that the government and other local authorities often turn to Hampshire for support with service improvement.
Most notably, Hampshire helped Isle of Wight Council recover from its devastating ‘inadequate’ rating, leading to the island’s recent ‘good’ in all domains Ofsted rating.
Improvement is happening in Hampshire too. In the past year the average Hampshire social worker has seen their caseload drop by up to a third.
“Reducing caseloads is never about one thing,” says Steve. “But one important factor is that our reputation as a service carries sway within the county council and that means councillors are prepared to support us as a department. That’s why they invested an additional £6.5 million in our plans to increase the number of social workers in Hampshire last year.
“As a county council, Hampshire really understands the importance of children’s services. We know it’s a false economy to make savings in front-door social work teams because when that happens we lose control of costs around the number of children in care.
“The best way to maintain control of our budget and deliver positive outcomes is to invest in social workers who are good at working with families to protect children.”
Unified social work teams
Another important factor that is helping Hampshire continue to reduce the caseload burden is its CAST team model.
Hampshire’s CAST teams combine the previously separate referral, child assessment and child-in-need teams. “These unified teams have been a boon for social workers and families alike”, says Stuart. “The CAST teams have now been up and running for well over a year and they have contributed to a significant reduction in caseloads.”
“The CAST teams reduce the transition points for families so that they get a single social worker and those social workers make, we think, well-informed decisions about whether the family needs a short or longer-term service,” he adds.
“If it’s a shorter service, there’s the investment that means social workers can support that child and family quickly and end social care involvement.”
Hampshire has also been introducing changes that support the work-life balance and career development of its social workers.
These changes include five extra days of CPD for every social worker and providing social workers with mobile devices so that they spend less time shuttling back and forth from the office between visits, which matters in a large authority area that’s 80% rural.
The service has also enacted a nine-day fortnight policy for all its social workers and frontline managers.
“We know social work is a demanding job and we want to help social workers look after themselves, so we instituted that policy right across the service,” says Stuart.
“We believe it’s a really important policy. Of course, there are times when it’s not possible to stick to that, such as when a social worker is required in court, but managers know it’s their duty to make sure social workers get that day back soon after.”
More changes are in the pipeline too, including emotional wellbeing courses. These courses have been piloted with assistant managers ahead of being offered to all social workers and frontline managers.
Change from the frontline
Taken as a whole, the changes already made, and plans to make, are building a service that’s even more positive for social workers and the families and children they work with.
“The way in which the culture is beginning to be embedded in Hampshire is exciting in terms of how social workers are embracing change and embracing new ways of working,” says Steve. “The positive way social workers are feeding into the changes gives me hope that, together, we’re going to discover more ways to deliver an even better service.
“Those improvements will not necessarily come from people like me and Stuart. They will also come from the social workers on the frontline suggesting ideas and finding new ways to do things better.”