A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care: responding to your questions

In November 2019, CPI UK launched a new blueprint for children’s social care which outlined how a local authority (LA) in England could redesign its children’s social care services to put relationships at the heart. We worked with over 80 social workers, practitioners and LA leaders to create the blueprint, taking their steer on what a system would look like that enables social workers to spend more time with families and is set up to support them to do their best work. 

We designed a system together with them, and our partners at Frontline and Buurtzorg Britain & Ireland, that creates the opportunity for social workers to spend more than 60% of their time with children and families. This could dramatically increase social workers’ potential to drive positive outcomes, and the system presented could be run at no additional cost, and within existing regulation and legislation. So it could be done today.

The response to the blueprint has been amazing. It’s been widely covered in the national media, like The Guardian and The Times, from inside the UK government and the civil service, and from the sector’s media. But most incredible have been the reactions of social workers.

Since the launch hundreds of social workers have got in touch asking how this can be done, and what they can do within their systems to drive change. 

We wanted to keep the debate going and have the chance to bring the growing community of practice around the blueprint together. So last week, on Wednesday 15th January, we partnered with the Social Care Institute for Excellence to host a webinar to continue to explore how these ideas could become a reality for local authorities and social workers across England. Social workers, practice leaders, influencers and others interested joined us from Manchester, North Yorkshire, London and hundreds of other LAs across the country, as well as from Wales and Scotland and as far as Zambia, UAE and Australia.

The next step in making the blueprint a reality is to work with a local authority to design what this would look like for them. So if you are a local authority leader, or a practitioner who wants to take this to your leadership team, do get in touch with katie@centreforpublicimpact.org to join those we are already working with. You can also join our growing community of practice to stay connected with those interested and trialling these ideas at all levels within local authorities across the country. 

 

Join our community of practice

 

In the meantime, we wanted to answer a few of the questions that have come up frequently from those who have reached out or in the webinar. Our hope is that this will help those in the system better understand the ideas and what they can do to make this a reality. So here goes:

Do I have to be at the top of local authority leadership to make change in this direction?

We have been asked this a lot by social workers and managers in LAs, and the answer is a resounding no.

Whilst the blueprint presents a redesign of a local authority’s system and we are working with a number of local authorities to change their structures, everyone has the power to help build the culture the approach relies on and make the case. A culture of empowerment, support and trust are fundamental to any restructure a local authority makes and this can be grown at any level of a local authority. 

We have heard social workers challenge the culture of management and control that exists, explaining to and showing their managers how that culture erodes their ability to do the work well. Many managers too have told us how they are trying to champion a different culture in their teams, one that embodies the trust they believe their social workers deserve. By coaching rather than managing and giving them the power to make decisions, managers have told us how this can grow social workers ability and confidence to make great decisions for children and families. So change really can, and is, happening at any level.

The blueprint then provides what a whole system could look like that is founded on a culture of trust, and that is set up to enable and support the social worker in their work with children and families. If you are interested in the ideas in the blueprint and want to join others who are making these a reality at any level in the system, join our growing community of practice who we hope to convene many times over the course of the next year.

 

Join our community of practice

 

Why did CPI get involved in this?

At CPI, we have been exploring what a different way of running public services could look like that puts decision making power where it should be, one that values citizens voices and that is set up to enable professionals to do their best work. This way has at its heart a series of principles that are about sharing power more widely within and between organisations, and with citizens. We therefore call this way ‘the Shared Power Principle’.

As part of this work, we came across social workers that explained to us that the children’s social care system does not feel like it is designed to enable or support social workers to do their best work, but has been built to command and control them, so they don’t cause harm to children and families.

We therefore wanted to see what redesigning the children’s social care system for a local authority around the shared power principle, taking inspiration from Buurtzorg’s success specifically, could look like in practice.

The blueprint presents one way this could look, at no additional cost to a LA and within the existing regulation and legislation. It presents a path for local authorities to start shaping for themselves, starting now.

What are the roles of different teams outlined in the blueprint and who from the current system would sit in them?

The blueprint does cover the roles of the different teams we think are important in a structure that is fundamentally set up to support social workers.

We also did a test with a local authority, where we theoretically transferred their current system over to what the blueprint proposes and found doing so would result in the benefits illustrated below. In doing that test, we made assumptions about who would sit in which teams, but we always acknowledged that any local authority actually piloting the blueprint would need to make it their own and design it in a way that works for them.

The roles of the teams we believe are fundamental – so the insight team provides the family facing teams with that expert, independent advice on case matters which we heard from social workers was a key value current managers added to their work – but who is in each of the teams would be bespoke to the local authority.

Dean Lawrence, Head of Service for Children in Need in Warrington and a fellow panellist on the webinar, also made the excellent point that people can rotate in and out of teams to ensure that everyone has the ability to grow and develop in different ways, and understand the decisions that are made at every corner of the organisation.

Where would supervision lie and how would escalation work?

As there is no manager of each family facing team the way supervision works, and how issues are ‘escalated’, fundamentally changes. 

Supervision is facilitated primarily through peer supervision within family facing teams. Two other pillars of the model also provide external avenues for supervision:

  • The Insight Team can provide independent advice on case matters and reflective supervision for social workers in family facing teams. This gives social workers the option to seek reflective supervision outside their core team.
  • The Strategy Team provide that necessary check and balance on the three most critical decisions for a child and family – whether to initiate care proceedings, whether to conduct an independent assessment and whether to place or change the placement of a child – as well as those over a certain financial threshold.

When we tested the model on a local authority’s existing system, we found that social workers could spend more time in supervision than in the status quo, because their time was freed up from navigating the bureaucracy and burdensome processes. 

As the Strategy Team is the only team who holds some decision rights over cases that social workers hold, and it is also their job to preserve the culture of the organisation, the nature in which the Strategy Team supervise these decisions must change.

In the model, the Strategy Team go into teams and find out about the context of the decisions that need their sign off, rather than social workers having to go to local authority leadership at panels. Using this mode means its authority that goes to information, not information that goes to authority. This way of interacting would help build the culture around supervision which is based on making the best decisions for children and families, not checking and controlling social workers’ work. More information on how supervision and oversight changes in the model, see page 34 of the blueprint.

The way we think about escalation therefore needs to change for this model to work. In the current system, when a social worker makes a mistake or something goes wrong with a child or family, the issue is escalated up the vertical chain of management.

In the system outlined in the blueprint, the issue would be first and foremost the family facing teams to deal with – with them having the most context about the decision and most ability to work out really what went wrong and learn from it.

If the teams felt that they could not address the issue themselves, the insight team are available to advise on all case matters. If the issue then still needs previous local authority leadership to get involved, the Strategy Team can be called in to help resolve the issue, but decision rights aside from those most critical that sit within the Strategy Team’s remit, are the family facing teams to make.

A system based on trust does not rely on vertical escalation to solve issues but tries to get the right people involved, with the right experience, to do the best for the child and/or family. We hope that by designing a system like laid out in the blueprint will help change ‘the blame game’ that we heard from many exists in local authorities.

What happens to new social workers, or those without the experience? How will they handle the increased decision making power?

For the new social workers or those coming into the profession without experience, this model should provide more of a collaborative, supportive environment for them to develop and grow quickly.

Former managers are now embedded within the teams as practitioners so there is the ability to learn directly from them and see them deal with case matters day to day, as well as access their support – something we heard from newly qualified social workers would be invaluable. The Insight Team also exist to provide independent advice on case matters and help coach individuals within teams on best practice – so this role is by no means lost. 

In terms of being able to handle the increased decision making power, we heard from the vast majority of team managers we spoke to as part of the creation of the blueprint that they believe most of the social workers they work with would be able to handle the increased responsibility and make good decisions with it. A lot of them posited to us that it is the way the current system is set up that makes social workers look incompentent and deskills them. 

Of course, all acknowledged that there will always be instances of low quality work done by individuals. But this is not a reason to design a system around exceptions. The model put forward proposes a way for the majority of social workers who do meet the bar of quality to do their best work. 

I do however worry that some managers may have been outside practice so long that they may have lost any social work skills they had. Re-training might be necessary for some of us!

This is a direct quote from the webinar chat room. And we very much appreciate this might be the reality for many managers given the number of years outside practice. Training would need to be provided for those that felt they needed it.

The majority of managers we spoke to however expressed a real energy to work directly with children and families again. Daniel Comach, Team Leader at Lambeth and a panelist on the webinar, also made that point that social work is unique in the sense that the most experienced are moved into solely management positions. Doctors for example, stay in practice as they get more and more experienced because otherwise their skills are not utilised in the best way, and experienced by the people who need them the most. Children and families need the best social workers. And many of the most experienced are in management and are not working directly with them.

This model aims to put the best talent in the system closest to the children and families.

Where are you at in terms of piloting this? And how are you planning on involving children and families in the pilot?

Many local authorities around the country have expressed real interest in piloting this. But any pilot we do would not be an off the shelf implementation of the blueprint but would need to be designed specifically for the local authority, with the social workers, current managers and most importantly with the children and families they work with. That was always the spirit in which the blueprint was written.

We wanted to put forward an idea for how this could work so that local authorities can shape it to make it their reality. 

If I could arrange a meeting with our Head of Service, or any other of our local authority leadership, would someone be able to come and present on this?

Yes! We are looking to work with any local authority who want to pilot the blueprint within their current system, support them to design what this would look like for them and help them make it a reality. We are already working with a few and building a community of practice around this. Please email katie@centreforpublicimpact.org if you would like to join them in this first phase of making these ideas a reality.

We have tried to take the most pressing questions people have tweeted and emailed in, and that came up on the chatroom in the webinar. The blueprint on pages 40-42 also tries to address those frequently asked questions we heard from people we spoke to and learnt from during the creation of the blueprint itself.

But if there are any others you have, do get in touch over email or @_Rose_Katie on Twitter!