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London Borough of Ealing

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’It means people can be as independent as they can be’: how one council is empowering adults and the social workers who work with them

Photo: fotolia/daoduangnan

The London Borough of Ealing’s focus on strengths-based practice has galvanised practitioners and helped them find creative solutions that make a real and lasting difference to adults’ lives

Strengths-based practice can sometimes seem like a cliché in adults’ services but in the London Borough of Ealing, it is galvanising social workers and making a significant difference to the lives of the people they work with.

Through its Better Lives approach, practitioners are equipped to work with people in a way that unlocks their abilities, makes the most of what is available in their communities and promotes their independence.

At the same time, the approach, introduced in 2017, is also supporting reflective practice and enabling practitioners to learn from each other, including in having difficult conversations about the levels of support people receive.

The focus of Better Lives, as with other strengths-based models, is supporting adults to be as independent as possible for as long as possible, with the support of family, friends, their wider network and community resources.

“The advent of the Better Lives agenda has made a really positive impact on the service,” says Andrew Chapman, manager of the community team for people with learning disabilities. “The main objective is to support individuals to maximise their levels of wellbeing and independence via family and community networks. It’s very much about traditional social work values.”

‘It means she can be as independent as she can’

In terms of what it means in practice, Annah Dines, a social worker in one of the council’s independent living teams, cites the case of a young woman with high-functioning autism whom she worked with recently.

“She was known to children and families for a long time because her mother had been consuming a lot of alcohol, and her partner as well, and there was quite a lot of abuse in the home. When she came to us, her teachers were worried about her and she was not eating and not concentrating. Because she was 18, she wanted to live independently, which she felt might improve her independence and relationship with her mum. We felt that supported living would be good for a while for her to be able to gain skills to be independent in the community.

“We looked at what she can do and what areas she wanted support with. When she moved in, I did a review to see how things were going. I informed her mum, with her consent. It means she can be supported to be as independent as she can.”

Despite its clear resonance with social work values, strengths-based practice poses challenges to practitioners, including the difficult conversations around people doing more for themselves as opposed to receiving a care service.

However, several aspects of the Better Lives model enable practitioners to work in this way.

Equipping practitioners

Practitioners can have pre-meetings before they go out to meet people, to make them feel more confident about these difficult conversations.

Andrew says this can involve rehearsing conversations, including through role play, and has proved very useful for social workers in his team.

Another key facet is regular huddles, in which teams share success stories, good practice and challenges, and work through how they might handle similar situations in future.

“I recently sat in on a session and I was impressed with how supportive people were to their colleague even if they felt things could have been done differently,” says principal social worker Dan Simms.

Social workers also get to know what is available in their communities so they can identify suitable sources of support for the people they work with.

Motivational interviewing

Key to the approach is the use of motivational interviewing, a person-centred counselling style of working with people designed to strengthen their motivation to make changes in their lives.

“It’s a good approach for identifying what people’s aspirations and strengths are,” says Andrew. “I think that was very effective.”

The council has invested significantly in training in the approach.

Andrew adds: “When Better Lives was launched, the council launched a series of motivational interviewing sessions, which I thought were invaluable. It was getting people to look at different ways of doing the task.”

Overall, he says, practitioners have been galvanised by the approach.

The training in motivational interviewing is reflective of a wider approach to learning and development in Ealing.

“They offer a lot of training and support. From what I hear and have seen online there’s not as much training in other boroughs as there is in Ealing,” says Stephanie Gordon, senior social worker in the DoLS and safeguarding team.

Annah and Andrew agree. Andrew adds: “It’s got very good training, particularly around safeguarding adults. The training provided is very strong, thorough and detailed.”

Opportunities to progress

Stephanie says that this investment in training translates into opportunity for practitioners: “There is the opportunity for progression quickly. They will offer opportunities to people inside first before going externally so you have that opportunity to move up, including in different teams.”

And this supports retention.

“I started with a whole cohort of people who I’ve got to know and work with,” she says. “A lot of people at Ealing now are people I know, and not just in my department.”

The Better Lives approach, inevitably, has been more difficult to implement during Covid.

Dan says: “Remote working takes away from the 1-2-1 conversation you have. I know that one of the things that I most got out of the job was going out to talk to people. Now I imagine when you do work from home and are trying to do things remotely, it’s very hard to know about everything going on with that person. For example, there’s domestic violence and other adult safeguarding concerns, so our ability to go and knock on someone’s door and see if they are ok is severely impaired.”

“For the council, the focus has been about enabling people to continue working in the way they can at the moment and how we maintain the quality of work.”

A focus on wellbeing

Alongside this, Dan and senior colleagues have been focusing on ensuring practitioners’ wellbeing has been supported through such a difficult time.

“I’ve been focusing in on making sure that people are getting the right kind of conversations at work about mental health. We ran a few sessions recently talking about mental health in the workplace. It’s not something that people find easy to do but it was something I was keen to take forward. In October, we did some work on Covid-19 looking at the impact it has had on people’s wellbeing, looking at how people have been coping.

“It has had an obvious impact on people, working from home, having their family there, home schooling, having to have sensitive conversations at home. Looking at how things have impacted on staff helps us understand how we are in the best shape when we can go out into the community again to work with people.”

He says that throughout, he and other senior managers have made themselves available to staff, to address any concerns.

“One of the things that works well I feel is having Q&A sessions for staff so they can ask us as a senior management team about what is going on,” he says. “Also, making ourselves available for team meetings. If then people feel they are being listened to and there’s accountability and transparency about decisions being made that will hopefully reduce the uncertainty that people have.”

‘A nice place to live and work’

As for what Ealing’s like, social worker Stephen Mwangi, who lives in the borough, says: “Ealing is a vibrant place to work. It’s full of restaurants, shops and is a really nice place to live and work. The transport links are really good. Previously I worked for another council where I had to drive miles to see people. In Ealing I can use the bus or the train or bicycle or your car. I have walked to see some of my clients because the distance is short. It makes it easy for you to do your job. It’s quite a mixed community, which is really nice.”

Stephanie adds: “It’s an affluent area but there are some really poor areas that you wouldn’t realise. I’d lived near Ealing my whole life and always viewed it as affluent but I never realised how much poverty there was. It’s a nice place to work there are all the shops and things to do in your lunchbreak.

“There are lots of people who I’ve made really good friends with and because the people there are consistent you get to know people in different teams.”

If you are interested in opportunities at the London Borough of Ealing, see the latest vacancies here.