It was incredibly early in Samantha Jones’ social work career when her local authority ripped up its practice approach and introduced a systemic model to secure much-needed service delivery improvements.
Havering’s systemic approach has a face-to-face focus, which puts relationship-building at the heart of how it delivers services to the children and families it supports.
The approach encourages frontline staff to prioritise face-to-face interactions with the families and children. This is achieved by implementing a cultural shift where paperwork and form-filling are reduced, flexible working and using mobile IT systems are encouraged, and peer-to-peer support is actively recommended.
From frontline social workers to senior leadership staff, employees are systemically trained under a culture where building relationships are privileged over data and monitoring.
“What we are saying is we want to be brave enough as an organisation to move away from having to record every interaction,” said Dave Tapsell, head of clinical practice, Children & Young People Service (CYPS). “Because once you start doing that, what you end up doing is developing what we would describe as defensive practice, rather than defendable practice.
“The face-to-face approach is relatively new, in terms of organisational change,” said Dave. “But what we have seen in the last 12 months is that we are beginning to reap the benefits. We have seen that the quality of social work, supervision and the quality of organisational structures has dramatically changed and that is based on the face-to-face systemic approach.”
Havering introduced the face-to-face model three years ago and within nine months, started training business support staff. So, when Samantha began her children’s social work career at Havering’s intervention and support services team in 2017, the new systemic practice model had already had some time to bed in.
Developing every social worker
Before Samantha become a social worker, she spent three years as a youth offending practitioner in Havering and was used to working in the borough’s stable, supportive teams. Knowing that the support would be there made her feel confident about the switch to systemic practice.
“The management have been very supportive of my development,” Samantha says about the level of training she and her colleagues were offered to get them up to speed on working systemically. “Opportunities for training and further study have always been forthcoming here.”
Havering offers a comprehensive training package that gives all social workers 18 days of funded training, and the opportunity to build on training and education in family therapy. According to Dave, this approach has helped the organisation to develop, retain and attract a better quality of staff.
Havering Social Care Academy
In Samantha’s relatively short time in social work, she has completed her assessed and supported year in employment and then immediately began a year two post-graduate certificate in systemic & couple therapy. There is the possibility of her working towards a master’s in an advanced practice area, and practice educator training.
“I’m only one person,” she laughs, but knows these opportunities are there now and will be “in the future” as she wants to keep growing her skills and practice.
Giving social workers lots of opportunities to grow and develop is one of the key ways Havering has been seeking to embed systemic practice in its work with children and families.
This is perhaps best displayed by investments in its social care academy, which works with every social worker – from newly qualified to team manager – to give them a four-year programme of development opportunities.
A whole family approach
The council’s also been embedding its new practice model by employing systemic family therapists to work directly with teams throughout the children’s services. These therapists sit in on meetings to offer specialist insight and conduct one-on-one consultations with social workers to help them with cases.
Samantha also says there are frequent “floor walks” and meetings with senior management, who are open and receptive to social workers’ needs and questions about how to deliver systemic practice.
On the frontline, Samantha feels systemic practice suits her way of working, and aligns with why she got into social work in the first place: to do more with whole families.
A systemic approach focuses on an individual’s relationships and social context, and in Havering that is built on through strengths-based questions and relationship-based work.
“I like the way the systemic model can open up discussions more, with the curiosity to look at things from many different perspectives built into the model,” she explains.
“While all of the evidence in cases we manage might point to one scenario or outcome, we want to look at other possibilities because sometimes we can follow just one thing and it may not be correct,” she adds.
Relieving the admin burden
Good social work, as is widely recognised, is made possible by the appropriate conditions to do the work in. Samantha relies on and gets frequent one-on-one and group supervision, the support of a stable team and the specialist support of systemically trained practitioners every day. But the practice with families only works when practitioners have the time to do it.
Havering’s most recent Ofsted inspection demonstrates the borough’s social workers have manageable caseloads, but the council has continued to reduce the burden on frontline staff in the time Samantha has been in post.
Johannah Philp is a business support team manager in the council and leads a team of support officers, who are embedded in social work teams to relieve the admin burden on practitioners.
“Our role ranges from very generic tasks to room bookings for meetings up to financial requests and resources for frontline teams,” says Johannah. “We secure accommodation, we assist the social workers in ensuring their case records are up to date and provide support as and when it is needed in the office. We work hard to ensure social care teams get out there and do what they do best.”
Business support officers are trained on the systemic approach, so they can speak in the same language as their social work colleagues. They’re also playing an integral role in Havering’s new case management system, which went live in March.
“We’re still getting used to the new system, as with any new structure, so adjustments and updates are still being discussed in our post-implementation meetings,” says Johannah.
“We go out to frontline staff to get feedback and views, asking what could make life easier for frontline staff using the system. Their input is paramount.”
For Samantha, this kind of support is helping her to become the social worker she joined the profession to become. Stresses are lifted and she’s able to work with families in a collaborative, holistic way to achieve the best possible outcomes.
“The families have responded really well to the new ways of interviewing and questioning that I have learned on my systemic course,” says Samantha. “Just as I’ve noticed the difference in my practice, I’ve noticed it in the positive response from families too.”