Moving from compliance to professional curiosity for social workers key to improvement – study

Study for LGA finds councils who have given practitioners freedom to innovate and made them feel safe and secure have managed to boost performance in children's services

Group meeting
Credit: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

Moving from expecting compliance from social workers to enabling them to exercise professional curiosity is a key factor in improving children’s services.

Councils that had made progress highlighted the importance of giving practitioners the freedom to innovate, found the study on enablers of improvement in children’s services commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA).

The report, by research consultancy Ipsos Partnership, also said improving authorities reported taking steps to make social workers feel more secure, so they felt safer in the decisions they took and less prone to anxiety and feelings of individual culpability.

Changing children’s services context

The study was based on interviews with national leaders and research with nine authorities that had either improved children’s services or sustained strong performance over several years.

It came seven years after a similar exercise, during which time the context around children’s services had changed significantly, the report said.

This included policy change, a revised Ofsted inspection framework, increases in certain types of need, due to mental health, poverty and extra-familial harm, greater care placement scarcity and worsening recruitment and retention challenges.

Increasing vacancy rate and use of agency staff

On the latter, the report pointed to the 21% rise in the number of children’s social worker vacancies in the year to September 2022, taking the full-time equivalent vacancy rate to 20% of the workforce.

This had led to “unparalleled dependency”, whose numbers had grown by 13% over the same period, accounting for 17.6% of the workforce.

The report attributed the worsening situation to the combined impact of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, with leaders reporting “a sense of exhaustion” that was leading some staff to opting for work that might be better paid and less stressful.

Councils that had overcome these challenges best generally had a “considered strategy for growing their own workforce, combined with a structured approach to retention, talent management and succession planning,” said the report.

This included initiatives such as the use of social work academies to develop staff, with training days backfilled and caseloads capped.

Social worker anxieties

In relation to improving the quality of practice, it said that practitioners in areas were performance were poor were “frequently fearful and defensive [and] anxious about shouldering the blame for a range of shortcomings, many of which are well beyond their individual control”.

Turning this round, the authors found, involved leaders “getting alongside staff to model new behaviours and create a more nurturing environment”, so that practitioners felt safe, reducing their sense of “anxiety and individual culpability”.

“Many local areas described moving beyond a focus on compliance to encouraging professional curiosity and unleashing the freedom of the workforce to try something different,” the report said.

Culture of professional curiosity

While this often followed a period of focus on “getting the basics right”, Ipsos Partnership also found that some improving authorities had, from the outset, established a culture encouraging staff to come forward with ideas for improving services.

Another key component, the study found, was the consistent application of a high-quality practice model. Many interviewees said it did not matter which model was chosen, so long as it resonated with staff and with the changes the authority was striving to achieve.

Other enablers of improvement

Outside of the workforce, the report also set out six other enablers for children’s services improvement:

  1. A strategic approach – this involved having a clear understanding of the problems and developing a clear vision for change, with staff and partner buy-in, grounded in improving the lives of children and families.
  2. Leadership and governance – having a strong and stable leadership team, with unity of purpose, with proportionate governance arrangements that held them to effective scrutiny.
  3. Engaging partners – this included not just leaders, but practitioners from across children’s services agencies working closely together, including through colocation and having a shared practice model.
  4. Building the supporting apparatus – this encompassed having effective performance monitoring, involving a few clear metrics and use of peer support and challenge from other councils.
  5. Fostering innovation – this included building on research evidence, and learning from practitioners, children and families, to implement new ways of working that improved services.
  6. Judicious use of resources – improvement in children’s services cannot be achieved without increased investment but this must be based on a robust business case rooted in improving children’s and families’ lives.

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One Response to Moving from compliance to professional curiosity for social workers key to improvement – study

  1. Irene Wilde October 20, 2023 at 9:00 am #

    Many financial problems were created when services became outsourced for children. The cost of a child in privately run children’s homes is phenomenal. A good foster care placement was always the best option for a child who could not be returned home. Unfortunately many foster carers were lost to the service when they became more professionalised. If a foster carer has more than one child, contact with birth parents can often result in foster carers taking children for contact every day along with attending child care reviews and other professional meetings.
    There are so many good, enthusiastic and caring social workers in Children’s Services but they are often let down by weak and inexperienced management. This results in social workers becoming disheartened, stressed and ultimately leaving the job as they know that if a child dies on their case loaded they will be hounded and blamed without any support from management.
    If authorities cannot operate a good needs led service, then it’s better not to offer a service at all. But that takes courage from local authorities to put that a the door of the government.