Unlocking the power of children’s social care in the UK
Putting relationships first by empowering social workers and prioritising the needs of children and families
The challenge for children's social care in the UK
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 social care 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.
A new vision for children's social care in the UK
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 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 for local authorities
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 and social workers to make change
To support leaders and practitioners in local authorities to make change, we have formed a long-term partnership with Frontline and 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 way and stop social workers from 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.
Stories of change in children's social care
We are building on the success of the Small Changes programme, and the multiple changes we saw practitioners make. In partnership with Frontline and Crescendo, we are supporting three local authorities - Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth, and Warrington - to make the systemic change needed to enable social workers to do their best work.
Read the stories of five practitioners who have been on this journey to learn about what they think of the process of making small changes, what they have been doing in their local authority, and what they hope to achieve.
It’s been an opportunity for managers and colleagues to come together and think about how we could make things easier for our children’s teams. I think it’s already having an impact because it encourages us to think differently.
At the start we were asked ‘honestly speaking, how much of your time is spent face-to-face with a young person?’ and no one was able to say more than 50% of the time. This isn’t great when the sole purpose of our work is engagement with young people.
On World Social Work Day one of my social workers was involved in organising ways to celebrate. We had a tree and wrote celebratory notes about team members which we then placed on it. We then had a meeting where the Director read out the names and stories on them, which was really motivating.
In our field, you never have enough time - it’s so fast paced and you’re always rushing. So it’s nice to reflect, share your views, articulate it and actually make it into a plan. In order to make a big change we need to start from the beginning, no matter how small that is.
I think there is a lot to gain from this process, and I like the approach taken by the team; it’s easy, clear and straightforward. I hope we see good outcomes that are sustainable, long lasting, and have a positive impact.
The Guardian: Children's social care has changed during Covid. That progress mustn't be lost now
REPORT: A sector seeking change post-COVID: insights from children's social care practitioners
Doing change differently: unlocking the potential of children's social care
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