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London Borough of Ealing

Frontline view

Putting a team around the social worker to make a difference to families

A team working together
Photo posed by models (credit: Rido/Adobe Stock)

The London Borough of Ealing’s Brighter Futures model gives practitioners the support they need to build empathy with children and families and help them change their lives

“As someone who is passionate about the model, I really want to embed it in my team so we can bring about positive changes in the families we work with. I also want to focus on staff wellbeing and for the team to know this model is about supporting them as well as families.”

Samia Ali is discussing the Brighter Futures practice model used by the London Borough of Ealing, where she is a team manager on one of its multi-agency support teams (MAST), the borough’s frontline children in need and child protection teams.

Her comment encapsulates a key principle of the model – supporting practitioners so they can make a difference to the lives of children and families.

About Brighter Futures

Brighter Futures is a practice model that seeks to enable practitioners to empathise with families and young people and recognise the impact of trauma and adversity on them and their relationships.

Communication between practitioners and those they support is based on the principles of PACE: Playfulness, to put the person at ease; Acceptance about them and their behaviour, rather than judgment; Curiosity about their lives and experiences; and Empathy, to ensure they feel understood.

A key tool in achieving this is ‘mentalisation’, which involves the practitioner seeking to put themselves in the shoes of the parent or young person to identify what they are thinking and how they are feeling.

At the same time, the model puts a ‘team around the practitioner’ to enable social workers to practise in the way the model envisages. Key to that is placing clinical psychologists in each team, to advise and support social workers through their cases, and using group supervision to enable practitioners to draw on the views, reflections and constructive challenge of their colleagues, including the psychologists.

Psychologist role

One of those psychologists is Charmaine Elliot, a Camhs practitioner who says her role, embedded in a local authority children’s social care team, is rare for the profession.

This is despite the fact that “pretty much every case that crosses a social worker’s desk would warrant psychological intervention”.

Often, this is to do with relationship difficulties, within the family or between the family and organisations such as the children’s school.

Charmaine says she and her colleagues support the social workers to “think about the different perspectives, motivations, needs and thoughts” of the family members. This is mentalisation.

“We will sit down with the social worker and say: ‘Let’s take the eldest child. What do they want? What do they need? What motivates them? What deters them? What desires do they have? What scares them?’. We ask the social worker to put themselves in the shoes of all of the members of the family.”

She says that, in the thick of working with the family, this perspective is something that can get lost for social workers.

Samia says she really values what the psychologists bring to the table, in supporting mentalisation, providing advice with particular issues, such as whether a child is autistic, and, where required, doing direct work with the family.

“We had a case with a mum who had a very difficult relationship with her teenage son, who was quite abusive towards her. She felt he had mental health issues whereas we could see it may be to do with certain traumatic experiences he had had with her. The clinical psychologist did a fantastic piece of work with the mum, helping her mentalise her son and what was going on for him and thinking about how she could manage his behaviour in a way that doesn’t result in conflict. At the end of those sessions, the mum was really grateful for that support.”

The psychologists are also core to group supervision sessions, which involve the social workers on the relevant team.

David Hall, team manager for the leaving care team, says: “A worker will present the case to the team. The team will be curious and the worker will listen to the team as they hypothesise about what’s going on. It allows for different viewpoints – that’s the real value of it.”

‘A golden moment for social workers’

Charmaine adds: “You may be struggling with 10-15 cases and struggling on your own, but every group supervision, you get to sit down and talk about your fears and hopes, and other social workers chime in and support. It’s a really golden moment in the day of the social workers.

“The clinical psychologist’s role is to help the social worker be as open as possible so that, if there are any biases or preconceived ideas, they can be ironed out.

“I have heard workers say they really appreciate having the clinical psychologist in group supervision as it really encourages people to have an open mind. In social work, it’s really easy to be in a cautious mode and work from worst-case scenarios or to give the family the benefit of the doubt. But having a group of people really reflect on the issue makes you not rest on your laurels and keep an open mind.”

Ofsted highlights

The value of the psychologist role was highlighted by Ofsted in a focused visit to Ealing’s leaving care service in November 2021. It said the opportunity for leaving care workers to consult with psychologists, or refer care leavers to them, showed the health needs of care leavers were a high priority for the council.

The visit found many positives, including that staff felt “very well supported, with accessible, visible managers and manageable caseloads at a level that enables them to build positive lasting relationships with care leavers”.

The Brighter Futures model was piloted from 2015-2017 with funding from the Department for Education’s (DfE) innovation programme, before being rolled out across the borough from 2017.

An evaluation for the DfE published in 2020 found that staff reported increased confidence in working with children and young people as a result of the model, spending on agency staff had reduced and there were indications that it had helped reduce spending on children’s placements.

Ealing’s offer to its social workers

  • Apprenticeships in social work plus provision of student placements through partnerships with universities and Step Up to Social Work and Frontline programmes.
  • ASYE programme, supported by an advanced practitioner.
  • A career progression scheme mapped to the professional capabilities framework (PCF) and knowledge and skills statements (KSS).
  • Regularly reviewed and enhanced programme of continuous professional development.
  • Comprehensive training programme for managers and leadership development programme.
  • Training and development programme on race as part of initiatives to promote equality and diversity.
  • Access to Research in Practice.

‘Being supported to be the best you can be’

Ealing has trained a number of practitioners in delivering training to their colleagues in Brighter Futures, one of whom is David, who was involved in piloting the model.

“The training programme helps you think about yourself and the impact you will have on the people you work with. One of the strengths is that it’s a co-facilitated course, with a psychologist and a social worker, so you can look from both aspects.”

The training Ealing provides its social workers in the Brighter Futures model is part of a wider focus on fostering the development and progression of their practitioners. The recent Ofsted visit found that leaving care workers “[had] access to a comprehensive training programme and [were] encouraged to attend relevant training courses regularly”.

David, who started his Ealing career in 1998 driving a minibus for disabled children and qualified as a social worker in 2012, says: “There is a real emphasis on personal development and growth. My supervisor today is constantly pushing me to make sure I’m developing. From Judith [Finlay, executive director, children, adults and public health] it’s a culture that’s ingrained. It recognises that social work is hard but asks how they can support you to be the best you can be for children and families.”

If you are interested in working at the London Borough of Ealing, here are some current vacancies. There are social work vacancies across other teams so please visit Ealing’s website to find out more.