A radical new approach to children’s social care in England

Katie Rose from the Centre for Public Impact talks about the revolutionary, but realistic, way local authorities can deliver children’s social care.

In England today, some 700,000 children lack a safe or stable home. For these children, social workers play a crucial role in laying the foundations for a better future. But currently, the system is impeding social workers from doing their best work with children and families.

We spoke with more than 100 social workers who told us that the work is too bureaucratic and the service is gripped by a command and control culture, with excessive layers of management and a focus on data that is removed from their actual work.

As one team manager said, ‘there are too many eyes and not enough hands’ and a social worker put it ‘I have no time to prioritise my relationships with families; which is what I came into the job to do’.

These issues have existed for decades, and many local authorities are trying innovative approaches to remove barriers. But there is a wide consensus in the sector that still too much gets in the way for social workers, limiting how much support can be given to children and families.

The Centre for Public Impact UK (CPI UK) partnered with Frontline and Buurtzorg UK & Ireland to work with social workers across the country to think about what a system would look like that prioritised relationships, empathy and enabled social workers.

We worked with social workers and practitioners from across local authorities in England, as well as many social work professionals from Ofsted, BASW, Children England and the Family Rights Group, to design a revolutionary, but realistic way for local authorities to deliver children’s social care differently.

The result is a new blueprint for children’s social care; a model that local authorities could consider when reviewing their own social care systems and cultures. Implementing this model would cost a local authority no more to run and complies with existing regulation and legislation.

A very different system

The blueprint outlines a very different system to what exists in many local authorities today. It presents a world where the majority of decision rights on cases would sit with the social workers who work directly with children and families.

Social workers would work in teams of eight, and cover a specific geographic patch, enabling them to build strong links with local services and understand the context of their families better.

These teams, referred to as ‘Family Facing Teams’ in the blueprint, are self-managed, meaning there is no traditional management system in place, and a budget is controlled by the team to spend on day-to-day case matters.

Oversight and supervision is provided by all team members, as peers, and if one member is more experienced, the team can decide to allocate fewer cases to that member so they can give more time to reflective supervision.

As there is no hierarchy, former team managers would sit within these teams and hold cases, increasing the number of practitioners working with children and families.

The rest of the system is then set up around these Family Facing Teams and exists to support, not manage, the social workers in them. Four teams make up this support structure:

  • ​A ‘Referral Team’ which handles all contacts and referrals, and allocates these to Family Facing Teams based on their geographic patch;
  • An ‘Enabler Team’ which exists to help the teams run efficiently and effectively, offering the administrative, business support, HR, recruitment and data analytical capabilities teams need;
  • An ‘Insight Team’ which exists to help teams to do their best practice with families, providing the experienced, independent advice on case matters;
  • And a ‘Strategy Team’ which exists to provide the necessary oversight on those decisions that most affect children and families’ lives, to be guardians of the overall culture of the service, and managers of the necessary senior engagement with the local authority, and other partners or agencies.

Only the Strategy Team has any decision rights over cases held by social workers; the other teams exist to solely support the Family Facing Teams.

The Strategy Team’s decision rights also only cover the most significant outcomes for a child or family, or most resource intensive, like deciding to place a child or initiate court proceedings.

Great potential to improve things for children and families

Decision right boundaries would be clearly defined to reassure social workers about the decisions they can make, to give them confidence that they can build and sustain meaningful relationships.

This way of structuring a children’s social care service offers great potential to improve things for children and families, as well as the social workers that work with them.

When modelled onto an existing local authority’s system, the potential benefits of transitioning were huge. Due to time saved through cutting bureaucracy and reducing travel time between visits, social workers would be able to spend 60% more time with children and families, dramatically increasing their ability to work with them to produce positive outcomes.

Time spent for supervision could also increase by 46%, and there would be a reduction in caseloads, because of increasing the number of case holding practitioners to tackle the demand. Lastly, average years of experience in teams would increase by 21%, due to former team managers working in these teams; keeping those most experienced with working with children and families in practice.

The blueprint, therefore, offers a local authority a plausible path through the issues that exist because of the current system. But what is proposed is more than just a structural reshuffle.

It relies on trust and sharing power, moving from a culture of command and control to one of enablement. This presents a significant challenge for local authority leadership, who would need to pioneer and work to sustain this culture.

It is important to point out that the blueprint isn’t a panacea and is, in fact, a starting point. It is inspired by a model that some public sector organisations outside the children’s social care sector are trying to use, and are seeing incredible results for those the people they support.

And many of the local authority leaders, as well as social workers and team managers, in the sector are motivated to pursue changes in this direction and make this a reality.

This blueprint finally provides social workers with the potential to give the children and families they are working with, the care and support they deserve and need.

For more information about the Blueprint, to discuss what it proposes, or see how you can make it a reality in your local authority, no matter what level you are at, email katie@centreforpublicimpact.org

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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