Can systemic practice improve how early help staff support families?

In the light of the increasingly complex cases being managed by early help staff and DfE reforms that will increase their role, a new study will explore how far systemic practice can make a difference in helping families

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By Max Stanford, head of impact and evaluation at Coram

This month marks one year since the publication of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy to reform children’s social care.

A core objective is improving early help services for families facing multiple disadvantages and challenges to enable their children to thrive at home.

This will place a premium on early help staff developing effective relationships with children, families and their wider network and having the skills to work with families in complex situations.

Early help staff carrying more complex cases

However, a November 2023 report by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that early help professionals were “increasingly working with highly complex family situations” that were sometimes “above a level that they felt was appropriate for them”.

It said there needed to be a “consistent expectation about practitioners’ skills, training and experience”.

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Systemic practice in social work

Systemic practice with families involves a practitioner working collaboratively with a family to understand their relationships and history in order to help them resolve issues by working on these relationships and those within their wider network.

The approach has been used in children’s social care for some time and formed a large part of the Reclaiming Social Work (RSW) model first developed in Hackney. This included in-depth training in systemic practice, group systemic case discussions, and clinician support to embed systemic practice.

An evaluation of the scaling and deepening of the model found it supported high quality, family focused and strengths-based practice that built families and young people’s capacity to address their own issues more effectively.

However, systemic practice is not routinely embedded in early help services, even as families present with increasingly complex difficulties.

Exploring systemic practice’s potential in early help

In an effort to understand the potential for systemic practice to support early help services, a number of feasibility studies were published last year by What Works for Early Intervention and Children’s Social Care.

They looked at areas that had embedded systemic practice in edge of care, early help or intensive family support teams. The studies showed signs of positive impact on key workers and the families they worked with.

Building on this work, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has commissioned a pilot study to understand the effectiveness of systemic practice within the Supporting Families programme. This involves authorities allocating key workers to provide early and co-ordinated support for families with multiple needs to help improve their outcomes and reduce costs to the state.

About the study

Coram, the first children’s charity, has been commissioned to lead the pilot study. Coram will work with the Institute for Family Therapy (IFT), the UK’s leading provider of family therapy and systemic psychotherapy training, to support the delivery of the pilot, and with Ecorys to carry out its evaluation via a randomised controlled trial.

The pilot study will involve local authorities embedding systemic practice in their Supporting Families key worker teams in a similar way to some aspects of the RSW model. This will include:

  • Systemic training by accredited IFT systemic tutors for all keyworkers, plus an additional 10 days of training for a number of keyworkers to becoming ‘systemic champions’, who will support the embedding of systemic practice.
  • Funding local authorities for the duration of the trial to hire a systemic practitioner qualified to an intermediate level in systemic practice. They will provide ongoing targeted training, monthly group reflective practice sessions and one-to-one consultation for key workers, and support the use of systemic tools such as genograms and outcome measures.
  • Support from IFT including a systemic practice virtual hub providing an administrative resource and networking centre for all keyworkers, embedded systemic practitioners and systemic champions. This will be overseen by an IFT systemic psychotherapist delivery lead, who will support local authorities.

The aim of the pilot is to test whether embedding systemic practice will help to improve key worker practice, to ensure that children and families in need have the right support at the right time.

Randomised controlled trial

The pilot will be evaluated through a randomised controlled trial involving 12 local authorities selected at randomly: six will deliver the systemic practice model, while the other six will act as a control group. The latter local authorities will be provided with financial and technical support to collect data throughout the pilot and with training in systemic practice after the pilot has ended in late 2025.

While pilots of this nature have become increasingly common in children’s social care, they are much less common in early help services.

This first of its kind study will not only be used to inform the development of the Supporting Families programme delivery, but will be central to the DfE’s reform of children’s social care.

It will also be an important element of the transfer of  Supporting Families from the DLUHC to the DfE in April 2024.

Shaping family help services

The pilot study will provide evidence to inform the development of family help services, bringing together early help and child in need provision into a single system. These are being tested in the Families First for Children pathfinder programme.

The aim is that embedding systemic practice will help upskill practitioners and develop multidisciplinary teams to better support families with multiple or complex needs and subsequently rebalance children’s social care away from costly crisis intervention.

The Supporting Families programme is inviting local authorities to submit expressions of interest to participate in the pilot study via Coram by 11 March 2024 with the pilot beginning in September 2024, running until December 2025. You can find out more about the pilot and submit an expression of interest for your local authority on Coram’s website.

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2 Responses to Can systemic practice improve how early help staff support families?

  1. Brid Featherstone February 25, 2024 at 8:41 pm #

    So how many councils use Reclaiming Social Work now? I doubt if there is even one! Even Hackney no longer does as far as I know. And why is this? Because if we are really serious about supporting families we have learned from the evidence that we need to tackle poverty and its associated stresses and develop a comprehensive family support offer.

    This is a terrible use of public money at a time when there is so little of it available.

  2. Robin Sen March 10, 2024 at 10:43 am #

    This article correctly reports that a 2017 evaluation of the introduction of Reclaiming Social Work (RSW) to five new local authorities reported very positively on its impact. The model also had also some very well connected backers, including the current Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, Isabelle Trowler, and Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education. The article, however, fails to mention that shortly after the 2017 evaluation, and despite the additional government funding given to implement RSW, three of the five local authorities in question received poor Ofsted inspection results (two ‘inadequate’ and one ‘requires improvement’). It fails to mention that a follow up evaluation to the 2017 evaluation, published in 2020 and conducted by two of the same researchers, found that only one of the five local authorities was still fully using RSW, and that there was little evidence that RSW had had positive impact on key performance outcomes across the five local authorities. It found RSW had not reduced the proportions of children in care, the use of agency social workers or staff turnover. Notably, the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care (as was then) also studiously avoided examining what had happened to RSW post-2017. In 2021, its then executive director went so far as to claim that RSW was ‘effectively inevaluable’.

    From the late 2000s to 2017 – mostly years of high austerity in public services – at least 20 local authorities in the UK invested significant public monies in implementing RSW within children’s services. As Brid Featherstone suggests above, it is hard to now find any local authority in the UK that currently does so, including its originator Hackney. The question must then be asked – why are we again seeing public monies thrown at a model whose track record is so sketchy, without at the very least a thorough and honest prior examination of what previously went wrong with RSW?