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A different way for children’s social care

Putting relationships first – A radical new approach to children’s social care in England

Social care in the UK

In England today, some 700,000 children lack a safe or stable home – and this number is on the rise. For these 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 children and families’ lives.

However, too many things get in the way of social workers’ ability to do their best work with families. We have heard from hundreds of practitioners that they work in a bureaucratic environment, with excessive layers of management and oversight, built on a culture of mistrust of the social worker. These problems are far from new. The last 10 years have been bookended by different governments trying to find a way through this, as well as by many local authorities striving for meaningful change. And a lot of these issues have increased during COVID-19. Social workers are trying to adapt to a new normal, but increasing management demands and processes are hindering their potential creativity and impact.

The challenge

Children’s social care represents one of the most high-risk areas of public services – giving the right support to children and families is essential to help them thrive. Nevertheless, systemic issues exist in the sector that are preventing social workers from doing their best work for children and families. These issues include:

  • Work being too bureaucratic: a Department for Education (DfE) survey reported that social workers spend 29 hours a week on a computer or doing paperwork, accounting for 65% of the average working week

  • Excessive layers of management: One in three social workers in the children’s social care system are not working directly with children and families, but are instead working within one of the three to five layers of management present in local authorities.

  • Overbearing insight: Children’s social care is gripped by a command-and-control culture. This has created an excessive focus on data that is removed from the actual work and yet is too simplistic to reflect the complexities of family life. Many practitioners have told us how this has felt even more real during the COVID-19 crisis; with managers’ anxiety over the current situation resulting in demands for more spreadsheets and processes.

As a result of these issues, as well as funding cuts, local authorities are trying new ways to better deliver their social services. Many local authorities have pioneered innovative approaches, before and throughout COVID-19. But there is consensus amongst system leaders and practitioners that this is not enough. Practitioners have told us that their biggest fear is that we aim to go back to a system that was not working pre COVID-19 as we look to the recovery phase.

Our work so far

The Centre for Public Impact (CPI) has been exploring a new model for government – one where power is shared and that values subsidiarity in decision-making, new approaches to accountability, putting relationships first, and building a culture of continuous learning. Buurtzorg, a Dutch home care organisation that empowered nurses to make decisions about their patients, is a good example of this principle in action. 

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.

Download the blueprint

Our work with practitioners during COVID-19

We have continued to work with social workers and leaders in the sector throughout the COVID-19 crisis. We wanted to listen to practitioners about what is working for them during this time and what the crisis is teaching us about the future of the sector; and help elevate their voices as we look ahead.

As part of this work, we have co-developed the Small Changes inspiration programme with practitioners. This programme was developed in response to many social workers coming forward after the blueprint was launched asking ‘what can I do to shape the future of the system in a way that prioritises relationships?’. The programme is a 2-3 month programme (featuring 4 sessions) and is offered to managers in the sector who want inspiration and support in making the small changes they see that could have a big impact for children and families. 

Through the programme, delivered by CPI and two practitioners in the sector, we give managers the space, tools, inspiration and connections to help drive change. We passionately believe that so many ideas for how the system could be better are being trialled or could be trialled by practitioners. We aim to support them in unlocking their potential and build a community of small changers across the sector. 

Download our Insights from Practitioners

Looking ahead

The blueprint offers one path forward for children’s social care that could produce better outcomes for children and families. And we have been hearing from practitioners throughout COVID-19 that there is a real fear of going back to how things were as we look to recovery.

We hear and work with social workers passionately committed to doing the best work they can for children and families. And the sector has made changes overnight in response to the crisis that no one thought possible.

We need to change the system of children’s social care to better prioritise relationships and the enablement of social workers. Now is the time to act.

How we can help

We want to support any local authority that wants to change their system in order to put relationships and enablement at the heart. 

We can support a local authority in a pilot of the vision that the blueprint presents, helping to design what a better system could be to work for the local need and context.

We can help leaders in the system learn to listen better to their frontline staff through helping to convene listening and sense making sessions. And we can work with practitioners within a local authority to help them make the changes they see through our Small Changes inspiration programme, designed and delivered in collaboration with social workers. 

Get in touch to start your journey with us; working towards a more human system.

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