The RSW model was co-founded in 2008 by our director Steve Goodman and the now Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, Isabelle Trowler. The model is predicated on the core belief that social work – as a profession – has lost its way: it lacks confidence, expertise and gravitas, and is over-bureaucratised. For a variety of reasons, the child protection system in the UK has become inflexible and defensive.
Social workers have become constrained, spending more time filling out forms than completing the type of transformative, direct work, which brings about real change. If social workers had the time and the skill to work more effectively, more children would be able to remain safely with their families. RSW was developed to address this.
Under Steve and Isabelle’s leadership, Hackney underwent comprehensive change – shifting the culture of practice and management by changing how we conceptualise the role, function and attitude of Children’s Social Care services. The RSW model was effectively implemented in 2008, supported by an array of talented and motivated social workers in the borough.
Over four years, the number of children in care dropped from 470 to 250. Families received the skilled support they needed to help them change and look after their children safely. The core values instilled in the workforce – of believing in families and working systemically whilst always paying attention to risk – is central to the RSW model.
A review of RSW in Hackney was carried out by Professor Eileen Munro on behalf of the London School of Economics in 2010 (report). It concluded:
“Reclaiming Social Work set out to bring about substantive changes in Hackney. We have assessed the value of these changes through a study of the culture within which the changes have been made, the processes of social care and concrete outcome measures. In each of these areas we have identified significant positive changes. These changes are evidenced by strong numerical indicators, significant differences between traditional practice and new social work units, and positive changes in the underlying organisational culture. On this basis, we have concluded that Reclaiming Social Work has had a positive impact and that the results of this study support and endorse the value of the programme.”
A comparative review of social work within traditional social work structures and RSW was carried out by The Tilda Goldberg Centre in 2013 (report). It concluded that social workers practicing within RSW are less stressed than their colleagues, enjoy their work more, and suffer less violence and aggression from parents:
“One of our researchers commented during the study that if we were starting child protection from scratch and comparing Reclaiming Social Work with conventional children’s services, there is no question that you would opt for the systemic unit model.”
One of the most distinctive components of the RSW model is the unit structure. Units are multidisciplinary groups of practitioners who co-work a caseload. Cases are allocated to units rather than individuals to ensure that practitioners are well supported in their analysis of risk and implementation of interventions. Although the Consultant Social Worker (CSW) is ultimately responsible for each case, unit members collaborate on casework, offering a variety of different skills and perspectives to their work with children and families.
A unit consists of five members, with each individual holding a particular role:
Frequent, high-quality, case based, reflective discussion is essential to good risk assessment and implementing evidence based intervention with children and families. Weekly unit meetings involving all unit members are held and every case receives attention. The discussion is balanced between reflective, analytical and hypothetical thinking with action focussed, goal-oriented case planning.
Reclaiming Social Work advocates a systemic way of thinking about and working with families and children. A systemic approach focuses on relationships and interactions in the family and wider system, including that of the professional.
In their 2013 study, the Tilda Goldberg Centre reported the following:
[The unit structure of RSW] ‘’…allowed a higher level of input for complex families or during a crisis, with different workers undertaking tasks or working together to resolve a problem… Shared working meant that in addition to more discussion of families and children there was much more shared knowledge about clients, as most or all unit members would have direct knowledge of the family.’
For a more detailed exploration of the model and for further examples of how it changed practice, read Social Work Reclaimed, edited by Steve Goodman and Isabelle Trowler, published in 2011.