“Families feel as though they are being heard and that we actually care about their experiences,” says Lauren, a consultant social worker. “Rather than just getting a list of names and putting a family tree together… it’s more about understanding their perspective and what’s going on for them.”
Lauren, who leads a unit of participants in the Frontline training programme at Oldham Council, is speaking about the systemic practice model used in the local authority. The model was introduced in 2021 and is being embedded and standardised across children’s services.
Chris, a social worker in the children with additional needs team at Oldham, also believes that the systemic approach promotes collaborative working with families. He has noticed a shift in the enthusiasm parents have when he’s engaging with them.
‘We focus on relationships’
In the past, he says, families he worked with saw tools like genograms as a ‘tick box exercise’. But through using a systemic approach, “we focus on the relationships, what it was like growing up, how they felt about each other, how that then impacts them”, he says and it is proving to be positive.
Chris receives good feedback from families he works with about this approach. “They seem really enthusiastic [about using genograms], like they’ve got something out of it as well,” he says.
Lauren agrees: “Whether it’s court work or child protection or children in need or you’re doing your initial assessment, by doing that piece of work systemically with the family you’re actually taking the time to listen to how they feel about one another, what their experiences have been like, their upbringings.”
The systemic approach has been rolled out across Oldham through the staff induction process, internal training, practice weeks and reflective supervision.
The importance of supervision
Oldham worked with Warrington Council to develop its internal training offer, which includes an accredited one-year practitioners’ course, a supervisory course and a leadership offer through the Centre for Systemic Social Work (CFSSW).
“This training provides in-depth knowledge and understanding of systemic practice origins, theory and tools,” says Stephanie Dixon, Oldham’s principal social worker (PSW).
“But it’s in the group reflective space that we really start to see systemic practice grow and our collaboration of skills across practitioners thrive.
“Using supervision as a space to reflect on the child and family situation, and our impact on that, is really important. If we understand the family’s point of view, our own biases and assumptions, and how these elements meet and come together, it allows us to hypothesise, be curious and ensure that the correct solutions are offered for a positive impact and outcome for the child and family.”
Lauren has noticed a big shift in the language used in the service, as well as in the culture.
“Everyone was already working systemically but maybe not using the language that goes with it,” she says. “A big part of that is people getting on board and using it, and people who are confident to use it are using it skillfully in meetings.”
“I’m always mindful of the language I’m using,” says Lauren. “I’m always using: ‘I’m curious about…,’ ‘I’m hypothesising that potentially this could be going on’. And I’ve noticed a big change in some of my colleagues who work on other safeguarding teams. They will start using language that we use because they hear it in the office.”
Stephanie adds: “This curiosity through questioning allows for us to all better understand each other’s experiences and viewpoints, allowing for empowerment and collaboration.”
Learning from everyone
Part of the culture at Oldham is a recognition that everyone can learn from others – whatever level of the organisation they are at.
“We recognise in Oldham that leaders are everywhere,” says PSW Stephanie. “No matter what stage staff are at in their social work journey, they bring personal and professional skills that need to be recognised and harnessed.
“Our Frontline students may not have as many years practising social work as others, but they are our experts in systemic practice theory, tools and application to practice.”
Lauren agrees, adding; “We learn from everybody and anyone, don’t we?”
Some of the students in Lauren’s unit qualified in September, and she received brilliant feedback from the social workers they co-worked cases with.
“I’ve learnt so much just from speaking to the students and getting their perspective on peer-on-peer learning, peer-on-peer coworking, shadowing cases”, she says. “Having that space to encourage that learning and encourage that co-working has been really important as well.”
Feedback from families
Feedback from families is also vital to systemic practice in Oldham.
Stephanie explains that during a recent practice improvement week, she and senior leaders looked at how the dynamics of power and privilege can make it challenging to access information from families and children in a positive and non-oppressive way.
“This has led to the revision of our participation strategy, enabling a variety of ways to gather feedback and ensure collaboration with children and families through working with them, not to them, and through hearing their voice,” she says.
Other positives have come through Oldham’s systemic steering group, where managers, senior leaders and key members of staff from all levels of practice meet to support the embedding of the practice model.
Sourcing feedback on, for example, how families experience child-in-need meetings or how practitioners are finding working in their teams has been valuable, says Stephanie.
“The systemic steering group helps ensure we are driving forward with the shift not only in the practice model we have adopted but the culture that this influences – a culture of being child and family-centred, curious, strengths-based, non-judgmental and open,” she says.