Reclaiming Social Work

We believe only a whole system change will bring about the required changes and we have usefully used Peters and Waterman’s 7S framework to focus on the whole system. The 7S framework helps conceptualise all the different components that need attention if a whole systems change has a chance of being successful. The basic premise of the 7S framework [sometimes known as the McKinsey 7S model] is that there are seven internal aspects of an organisation that need to be aligned if it is to be successful.

Strategy

Reclaiming social work aims to work proactively with families, and whilst not ignoring the importance of assessment, privileges direct work with families. This means social workers spend much more time working alongside families helping them to change so that the family is a safe place for their children.

For families where this is not possible, swift action is taken to remove the children through court processes and a permanent placement in a substitute family found for them.

This results in far fewer children needing to be looked after and impacts significantly on commissioning budgets. These savings are used to enhance family support services [both practical and therapeutic] thus producing a virtuous circle of improved services to children and families. In particular, investment is targeted towards providing intensive and speedy support at point of family breakdown [a feature largely but not exclusively associated with teenage years] aimed at keeping the family together.

Structure

Reclaiming Social Work organises staff into units. Significantly this ends the traditional team system whereby a team manager supervises six to eight social workers, each with their own caseload of families, and each in receipt of 1:1 casework supervision provided at varying intervals. In the Reclaiming Social Work model each Unit is led by a consultant social worker who has case responsibility for all families allocated to that unit. The other members of the Unit work to the consultant (a social worker; a children’s practitioner, a unit co-ordinator and a clinician) to deliver on all the social work tasks required. Every family is discussed in a weekly group meeting, which offers intensive, reflective time to discuss and decide what needs to happen next. In the traditional structure the best social workers are likely to become team mangers and hence lost as front line practitioners; the Reclaiming Social Work model enables the best social workers to continue in front line practice.

Staff

Reclaiming Social Work acknowledges just how difficult the job of a children’s social worker is. Social workers need to go into complex and highly charged family situations - highly charged, not least because the fear about the power of the social worker to remove their children becomes the family’s highest context. Social workers need the skills to immediately engage with family, both carers and children. This enables the process of risk assessment to successfully begin. Social workers then have to work with the family to change to ensure children are protected. This requires the social worker to understand how best to enhance family functioning through changing parental and child behaviour, and have the methodological knowledge and skills to do that direct work.

For this reason only staff with a high intellectual ability coupled with highly developed personal skills are selected to work in the Reclaiming Social Work model. Unfortunately being qualified as a Social Worker is not to date a guarantee of these attributes. The Reclaiming Social Work model has devised an intensive selection process to increase the likelihood of selecting staff capable of undertaking this complex task. The process includes targeted questions on the application form, verbal reasoning and written exercises for short listed candidates and for those who pass these a robust behaviourally orientated interview chaired by senior staff.

Staff are without doubt the most valuable resource and getting the right people in post is the greatest challenge.

Skill

Social Work education in the UK does not prepare graduates for the job of a children’s social worker. We have advocated elsewhere that qualification courses need to be more akin to medical training with at least a five year time frame and plenty of time in supervised practice. Both Universities and Local Authorities are responsible for working together with national government to improve the offer to social work students and we have elsewhere advocated the concept of teaching Local Authorities along the lines of teaching hospitals.

The job of social work is a challenging one requiring a range of complex skills and a sound knowledge base from which to practice. This includes the skills and knowledge to carry out effective assessments, implement intervention methodologies with  families which manage high risk contexts, understand both the physical and emotional development of children and young people, the ability to make positive relationships with families and other professionals, strong report writing skills and other good communication skills. Practitioners also need to be confident, articulate, and professional and have stamina and determination. In short to provide an effective social work service is a difficult job. 

Social workers need to be equipped with evidence based tools that help families change. The best evidence base at the moment points to social workers being trained in systemic family therapy approaches and social learning theory techniques. These should become a large part of qualification and post qualification programmes. In addition social workers need access to high quality supervision in these methods and to joint working the most complex families with experts. This requires different management arrangements for social workers which prioritise practice dialogue, whilst not ignoring the benefits of useful performance management tasks.

Reclaiming Social Work provides a comprehensive professional development programme for each role within the unit, to ensure that systemic practice and social learning theory are integral to the successful delivery of child protection practice.

Systems

This refers to the procedures, processes and routines that characterise how the work should be done: child care decision making; financial systems; recruitment and performance appraisal systems; information systems. In essence Reclaiming Social Work simplifies systems so that they are relevant, intelligent, flexible and useful to practitioners. Anything which an organisation creates should only be done to facilitate effective working with families. Anything which exists which hampers effective practice should be quickly changed or stopped altogether.

Procedures should be preferred to encourage practitioners to think through what they want to do and why, and then do it, rather than do it because they are told to. We are big opponents of the Integrated Children’s System believing it to encourage fragmented thinking with no capacity to tell the story of the child and his or her family.  A family focussed system for recording is required and hence significant changes to the exemplars are needed. Years of unnecessary red tape need to undone and replaced with systems fit for purpose.

Style

Social workers have long complained that the actions of local and national government over the last 20 years or so have led to an over – bureaucratisation of social work, which has strangled good social work practice. This results in social workers spending far too much time filling in tick box forms and working to performance indicators that have little relevance to the complexity of the work they are doing with families.

This all has to change.  Within Reclaiming Social Work the units are semi-autonomous where they are freed up to do their work with families and where the organisational culture around them focuses on prioritising practice through the release of practitioners from administrative and bureaucratic tasks. This is not an anti – bureaucratic position; any organisation needs systems, which support service delivery and demonstrate accountability for the use of public money but those systems must be fit for purpose and critically, efficiently managed.

Children’s Social Care is in the risk business and it is pointless being risk adverse. Decisions based on professional anxiety rather than thoughtful family focussed solutions, eventually results in a flooded system with no capacity for quality intervention. This can lead to more children being placed at risk.

Reclaiming Social Work recognises that risk can’t be taken out of the system and therefore it has to be managed proactively.  It is critical that the organisational system accepts that mistakes will be made. Organisational warmth towards its staff through the encouragement of open and supportive dialogue will help to encourage the growth of a learning environment where formal mechanisms for reporting error are visible so that lessons can be learnt and changes to the system implemented. The same applies to excellence – so that the best becomes most common.

Shared values

Reclaiming Social Work is a method of practice that is fundamentally connected with collaborative and respectful working, inviting the family and all the members of the system (including the professionals and others in the child’s wider system - from family, to school, to other services) to join in finding a solution to the presenting difficulty. In this way professionals are not seen to have all the answers, but instead look to the family’s own understanding and particular knowledge of what is not working, and help them to identify and build upon their own skills to create a way to move forward. 

By privileging the voices of parents/carers and children and those involved in their lives, Reclaiming Social Work provides a context in which families gain enough confidence to rely on their own strengths and resiliencies, and to play a greater role in finding a solution. In general family systems are self-regulating and can manage most difficulties on their own, or with minimal support.  This is the everyday resilience by which most families survive the challenges they encounter over time.  Where intervention is required, however brief, social workers must question some of the problem-saturated descriptions, which tend to accompany referrals as a way of liberating professional energy and attention.

Within Reclaiming Social Work the driver for decisions on who does what within the Units and across the organisation  should be the interests of children and families and not dictated by procedural and/or service specifications. The latter are there to guide, not to bind us. Partnership too, with other professionals is critical. It is hard enough for families to have a number of different people with different professional perspectives impacting on their family life without the relationships between those professionals being fractious, competitive and mutually dismissive. Unfortunately in the past this kind of interaction would not be unusual. Reclaiming Social Work promotes the utmost respect for the other professionals we work with, and encourages the resolution of differences and tensions far away from our interactions with families. Well coordinated and thoroughly planned interventions whether additional or specialist support,  bring with them great benefits for children and families. 

Too often in the past it is possible to see how professional stories that are built around families and their children have lacked substance and have led to ill informed and sometimes harmful approaches and decisions. In the often stressful, high risk and highly active environment that is children’s social care it is all too easy to lose sight of our purpose and our values. This is often illustrated by a tendency to behave in punitive, risk averse ways towards some of the most vulnerable children and families in our society. Reclaiming Social Work encourages staff In their work with families to stop, listen and think about what has been said and the meaning this has for the child’s welfare. Reclaiming Social Work promotes individual and collective responsibility for behaving in ways, which enrich the system within which we operate and offer the best chance of being helpful to families.