Employer Zone

Somerset County Council

Frontline view

A place where new ideas to help support families are welcomed

Social workers on a virtual meeting
The team maintain the supportive atmosphere online (Credit: Somerset County Council)

Somerset County Council is encouraging creativity and autonomy to drive forward its relationship-based approach to children’s social work

“It would be good if they could bring new ideas with them. We’re really receptive to trying out new ideas and seeing if they work for us.”

Elizabeth Sterland, consultant social worker in a frontline safeguarding team in Taunton, Somerset, is musing with her colleagues on the type of social workers they hope will join their team.

It is carrying vacancies after staff have taken promotions in other areas of Somerset which, as Elizabeth points out, is a very positive reason to say goodbye to people, even if it does put the team under pressure.

Now a consultant social worker after eight years working in the Taunton team, Elizabeth experienced the years during which Somerset children’s services were rated inadequate by Ofsted. However, Ofsted’s last inspection found real progress had been made and its last focused visit in 2019 praised the increasing numbers of permanent team managers and social workers, the manageable caseloads for all staff and the good understanding of thresholds and working with partner agencies.

Family safeguarding model being introduced

“What’s nice about the journey we’ve been on is that now the changes have become embedded it feels we can go even further to develop the best practice possible,” Elizabeth says.

She’s excited the council has adopted the family safeguarding model, developed by Hertfordshire County Council, as she feels it will help them build on the systemic practice approach already in place.

“It feels like the next step. We couldn’t have done this when we were rated inadequate. Nobody had the headspace. We were just trying to get visits completed on time and get the basics right but now it feels like we’ve got a bit of breathing space and we can really focus on quality.”

Better at holding risk

Cathy Jones, the operations manager for Taunton’s safeguarding and assessment team, agrees.

“Our practice has changed a lot. We’ve been able to move on from being very process driven and are now focused on more strengths-based and relationship-focused practice. That’s happened because we’ve become much better at holding risk and dealing with anxiety – both our own and that of our partners.

“You can’t get to know families properly and understand the dynamics without being skilled at holding risk. And you can’t hope to make sustainable change in families if you don’t take the time to get to know them and their history.”

Cathy doesn’t underestimate the challenges that still lie ahead but says it’s nice to be in a place where social workers now have more autonomy and the opportunity to be creative.

Encouraging creativity

“When you’re coming out of ‘inadequate’ you have to micromanage because people are under so much pressure they find it difficult to see the wood for the trees. You have to take it back to basics and we were definitely risk averse. But now I’m asking social workers to be more creative in their thinking about how they can keep children at home safely.”

Cathy cites an example of a father they were working with because of concerns about child neglect. Although he was making progress on his emotional involvement with his children, he kept missing appointments with professionals.

“I asked the social worker what she thought we could do to help. She said because the father had learning disabilities she thought he might benefit from having a modern Alexa with a screen so he could have a large, visual reminder of his appointments in his kitchen. So we secured some funding and that’s what we did. We’re now monitoring to see if it helps.”

Elizabeth and her colleagues – Rachel Mcauliffe, a student social worker on a Frontline course, Abigail Prettejohn, a safeguarding social worker and Sophie Simmons a newly qualified social worker – say they like the supportive atmosphere of the team where nobody is left to feel alone.

Resilience in a crisis

This has never been more valued than during the current coronavirus crisis, which has seen teams having to keep in contact with each other and some clients online while social distancing guidelines remain in place.

Abigail says of all the places she has worked she has felt most at home in the Taunton team.

“We can have a laugh and you know people have got your back – from the admin teams who go out of their way to help you to the duty manager being there for you when you’re dealing with a 13-year-old locked out of their family home at 9pm at night.”

Cathy says it’s important the organisation understands the impact on social workers of dealing with difficult and emotionally distressing cases.

“We had a social worker who had to remove a child at 4.30pm on a Friday and the team manager and I went to check everything was ok on our way home just so she didn’t feel alone. You can’t underestimate the toll that takes on someone. I want the office to feel a safe place for them, even for black humour if it helps them cope. That’s why I encourage people interested in working here to pop in for a chat and to meet the team before the interview. It’s important it doesn’t feel like a scary place.”

Generous with knowledge

Sophie says she had such a good experience on her student placement that she decided to return for her assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE). “It just had such a good feel about it that I knew this was where I wanted to start my career.”

Rachel agrees and says the team is generous with their experience, knowledge and passing on skills.

Cathy says this passing on of knowledge is encouraged through the career pathway, where consultant social workers take on a practice educator role with students, chair strategy meetings and mentor more complex cases.

“I think Somerset has a lot of exciting things happening now for social workers who are keen to develop. The family safeguarding model roll-out is exciting and we are also getting the family drug and alcohol court (FDAC) in Somerset next year which is also a different way of dealing with complex cases,” she adds.

The group leave on the whispered intelligence that Cathy has brought in cake for the team.

Elizabeth laughs: “There’s always lots of cake!”

If you’re interested in joining the Taunton team, or any other team in Somerset’s children’s services, check out the current vacancies. Alternatively, book a place on one of Somerset’s try before you buy days for social workers and occupational therapists.