The Ofsted checklist for implementing a social work model of practice

Yvette Stanley reflects on the lessons from inspections when considering implementing a social work model of practice

Yvette Stanley
Yvette Stanley

By Yvette Stanley

As more and more local authorities invest in and use models of social work practice Ofsted is often asked about which ones are more likely to lead to success and improve outcomes.

The first thing to say is that Ofsted does not endorse any particular model or approach. During inspections we are looking for the impact a model has on children’s progress and experiences.

However, what is becoming clear to us is that embedding a new model is a challenging process. It is not a quick fix!

When we talk about ‘models of practice’, we mean a particular way of, or approach to, working with children and families. It is values-based and, when successful, transformative.

Listen to Yvette Stanley discuss practice models as part of her reflections on Ofsted’s annual report published in late 2018

But we’ve found significant variation in how well some models are implemented. The name of the model does not tell you what it is or what it does – the same named model can be implemented quite differently in different places. It is important that senior leaders know what they are trying to achieve and what success looks like. The same approach is not necessarily right for every local area.

Points to consider

Based on the knowledge built up through our inspections here is a checklist to consider before and during the implementation of any social work model.

  • Take a whole-system approach

If a model has just been tagged onto the existing system or ‘dragged and dropped’ from elsewhere, this can lead to tools not being used effectively or being used mechanistically. It can also mean a less coherent experience for children and their families and the opportunity to impact positively on practice can be missed. At worst, it can impact negatively on the progress, experience and even on the safety of children.

We are finding that when models have been well implemented, they permeate the culture and thinking of social workers and leaders. At each stage of the child’s journey through the system the principles of the approach must be embedded in the way professionals work with children and families.

  • Have a clear ethos

A model of practice is most effective when the local authority’s own ethos is clear and underpins the approach.

For example, in Bexley, the ethos behind the well-embedded social work methodology is that children should grow up in their own families and other family networks when it is safe for them to do so. Family-based relationship work starts with the whole-family network and is supported and underpinned by a clear operating model.

  • Develop a confident and committed workforce

Local authorities need to provide the whole social care workforce with the language, knowledge, tools and skills to deliver any model they have chosen. A model won’t work unless there is ongoing training and support for all staff. Managers have a crucial role. They need to believe in and ‘own’ the model. That way, they can embed the model through all learning activities, supervision and management oversight. This will support staff in being both confident and skilled in delivering the model of practice.

A well-articulated approach to social work can also support good morale and help with staff retention and recruitment.

  • Set clear expectations

Every practitioner needs to understand what is expected of them. At both an individual and organisational level, everyone needs to understand what success looks like.

A consistent approach means applying the same operating model at all levels, with the same principles and philosophy behind it. However, consistency does not mean rigidity. The best models are adaptable and flexible so that practitioners can modify them for specific situations. Models should support social workers to do the right thing and not become a mechanistic way of responding to families.

  • Build on solid foundations

When the conditions that enable social work to flourish are not present, then it is likely the model won’t work. Implementing a model is not a ‘quick win’. Models need to be built on some solid foundations including:

  1. a stable workforce
  2. manageable caseloads
  3. effective management oversight and frequent supervision
  4. highly visible leaders and managers
  5. a strong culture of learning
  6. good qualitative assurance, performance monitoring and performance management arrangements
  7. mature partnerships with other agencies
  8. clear focus on core social work tasks

When implementing a model, there is a risk that it may inadvertently lead to a loss of focus on some of the basics.

For example, previously we have seen LA’s implement a model of working in ‘pods’ (small groups of social workers who work closely together with a ‘practice lead’, who has a close working knowledge and oversight of their work). While this led to good reflective discussion and assessment, the shift meant professionals lost their usual level of focus on timely decision-making, leading to delays for children. The best social work practice is founded on both values and professional standards, which are applied with discipline.

  • Monitor the impact of the model

There will always be unintended consequences of implementing a model and these need to be responded to quickly. It is critical that:

  1. the impact of the model is very closely monitored
  2. a robust quality assurance and performance management system is in place
  3. where necessary, remedial action is taken promptly

The best places evaluate their model over the longer term, being clear about how far success criteria have been met. They involve their practitioners in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the model.

Which model?

I believe there are certain ingredients across different models of practice that enable them to be more effective.

  • A family-focused approach

Models that tend to make the biggest positive difference to the progress and experiences of children take a whole-family, holistic approach. They address key needs and risks while identifying and using strengths but without losing the focus on the child.

  • Valuing stable relationships

Most models focus on the importance of stable relationships with social workers. They see this as a critical element of achieving sustainable, positive change for children and their families.

For example, in East Sussex the model of ‘connected practice’ is now resulting in helpful, enduring and trusting relationships between practitioners, children and their families, sometimes over many years.

In Kensington and Chelsea, children’s services staff are trained as systemic practitioners. The social work model ensures that children and families experience minimal changes of social worker, even though their service needs may change, so that the relationship can remain stable.

Leeds uses a restorative approach, which promotes working ‘with’ a family rather than doing work ‘to’ them.  Families ‘own’ the plan promoting sustainable change and children remain with the same social worker whenever possible.

  • A shared model across agencies

Models of practice can be particularly effective when used across agencies.

Our report ‘Growing up neglected’ (based on our joint targeted area inspections focused on older children living with neglect) found that where local areas took a strategic, multi-agency approach then staff across all agencies had the support, training and tools needed to tackle neglect of older children. These areas had a more consistent and considered way of working that was having a positive impact on many children.

Islington and its partner agencies are embedding a model of trauma-informed practice. Professionals have commented to inspectors that this training has transformed the culture in schools, for example, by providing a safe space for children to disclose abuse and by helping teachers to be professionally curious.

  • Focus on strengths, balance with risks

Any model should have a focus on families’ strengths and their capacity to change but must also clearly identify the risks. The implementation needs to ensure that the model guards against over-optimism and against assessment and intervention becoming too adult-focused.

For example, Essex uses the ‘relationship strengths-based’ practice model which helps staff understand a child’s lived experience as well as using a family’s strengths to achieve sustainable, positive changes.

  • Purposeful direct work

The best local authorities see purposeful direct work with children and families as a fundamental part of their practice model.

For example, in East Sussex, creative and purposeful direct work with children is widespread. Professionals use a range of direct work tools, as well as a neglect toolkit, to enable effective communication and participation with families.

In North Yorkshire, professionals use purposeful, sensitive and imaginative direct work to gather the wishes and feelings of children and to understand their needs.

Systemic responses

The accumulated challenges that our children and families face need systemic responses and the models we choose must reflect and respond to these challenges. They must provide the knowledge, tools and skills to enable great social work practice and ensure a continuous focus on children’s experiences and progress.

We have seen significant investment and innovation as models of practice have developed. When it’s done carefully and well, innovation moves social work forward and leads to better decision-making and more impactful direct work with children and families.

What we shouldn’t do though, is forget the basics.

Social work practice continues to evolve. We are all still learning what works and it is here that I hope Ofsted can make a valuable contribution.

I will continue to return to this important issue because it’s clear from our inspections to date that models of practice implemented well can have a positive impact on the lives of children and their families.

Yvette Stanley is Ofsted’s national director for social care. You can read the full version of her commentary here

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