For many children, social workers play a crucial role in laying the foundations for a better future. It is the quality of the relationships that social workers build, and their skill in navigating these relationships, that can really make a difference to the lives of children and families. This is evidenced by Department for Education research and something experienced firsthand by social workers across the country.
However, too many things get in the way of social workers doing their best work.
Research found that social workers only spend ~20% of their time with children and families, while ~80% is spent on paperwork and navigating bureaucracy (BASW, 2020)
77% of practitioners felt they could not help people as much as they wanted to, with 56% reporting that a focus on targets rather than resolving issues for people was a cause of job-related stress (Social Work England)
The most cited reason for leaving the social work profession was local authority culture, while 28% cited the amount of paperwork and 20% reported that it was because they could not make the best use of their skills and experience (Department for Education’s longitudinal study)
In response, local authorities are trying new ways to better deliver their services and many have pioneered innovative approaches. But there is consensus that this is not enough.
The wider social work system needs to change so that social workers can do their best work with children and families; spending time with them building relationships.
Without this, they will never be able to positively affect outcomes to the best of their ability, and we will continue to lose good social workers who are not able to do the job they came into the profession to do.
Creating a vision
The Centre for Public Impact (CPI) has been exploring a new model for public services. One where power is shared, relationships are put first, and continuous learning is valued.
Inspired by these ideas – and after seeing Buurtzorg in action in the summer of 2019 – a group of children’s social workers and system leaders came together with CPI and started asking questions. How might we be able to apply this relationships-first approach to children’s social care in England? What would a local authority look like if it were to change its structures to better enable and empower social workers to support children and families?
CPI, Frontline and Buurtzorg UK and Ireland teamed up with practitioners to explore the answers to these questions. Working with over 80 professionals from across the social worker sector, including many social workers and system leaders from local authorities, we developed what a different approach to delivering children’s social care could be; in a way that prioritises relationships and time spent with children and families.
We found that by doing so, local authorities could see the following five key benefits:
Five key benefits
More consistent social care with minimal hand overs allowing social workers to develop stronger relationships with families.
Greater time with children and families, increasing from 16% to 25% of social worker time.
Reduce average social worker caseload by 21% from 15.5 cases to 12.2 cases.
Increase time spent in team meetings/supervision by 46%.
Increase average years of experience of case-holding social workers by 21%.
Supporting local authorities to make change
Our next step in the journey was to support practitioners and leaders in local authorities to make this type of systemic change a reality.
To build our understanding, we listened to leaders and practitioners from across local authorities throughout the first stages of the pandemic. We heard about their experiences and what the crisis is teaching us about the future of the sector. We wanted to understand what the changes implemented due to COVID-19 were showing us about the sort of wide scale change that is needed.
To support leaders and practitioners in local authorities to make change, we have formed a long term partnership with Crescendo; a social worker led team that believes we need to reimagine the current social care system. Together, we co-developed and launched the Small Changes inspiration programme; a programme that enables practitioners to make the small changes that can make a big difference to the amount of time they spend with children and families.
Small changes occupy the space between making no change and full system change. This involves working side by side with practitioners to identify the everyday things that get in the wa and stop social workers doing their best work. Small changes are based on the premise that change can come from on the ground practice. They are changes that are within the local authority's scope of influence that could change now, and do not require any changes to national regulation or legislation.
We launched the programme with 30+ practitioners from over 15 local authorities and heard what a difference it could make:
“I loved hearing other peoples ideas and sharing a passion for change in social work. To be able to spend time with like-minded people who want the best for the children, families and social workers is so refreshing.”
“It was great to have the space and time to think about different models, meet others and hear from them what they are inspired by and how they are going to try and implement changes.”
We are building on the success of the Small Changes programme, and the multiple changes we saw practitioners make. CPI and Crescendo are now supporting three local authorities to make the systemic change needed to enable social workers to do their best work.
We are first supporting practitioners and leaders to make the small changes that practitioners believe could make a big difference to the time they get to spend with children and families. We then plan to co-design local blueprints with them, that build on this change and create more enabling structures for practitioners to work in.
Throughout the year ahead, we will be working closely with our three local authority partners, and aim to share all our learning, challenges and successes in helping social workers spend more time with children and families.
We are in the first phase of our work with local authority partners. In spring 2022, we will share our initial findings and provide opportunities for others to become involved in future phases.