REPORT: A sector seeking change post-COVID: insights from children’s social care practitioners

Last November, as part of our work with practitioners to design a new blueprint for children’s social care, we heard practitioners speak about the need for a system that prioritised relationships and gave social workers the right level of autonomy to be able to deliver the best support.

However, COVID-19 has since dramatically changed the nature of public services in the UK. Frontline professionals in children’s social care have had to change the way the service is delivered to children and families overnight. 

We were curious about how COVID-19 influenced practitioners’ ability to carry out the values highlighted in the blueprint; how has their relationships with families, and their autonomy to do their best work, changed?

What has this crisis taught practitioners about the future of children’s social care? And, what does the system need to change to deliver the best outcomes for children and families?

To find out, we spoke to the practitioners who helped us design the blueprint. We heard that for many, this has been a chance to operate in ways that prioritise relationships with children and families and enable social workers to do their best work. Flexible working arrangements imposed by COVID-19 and the lifting of old ways of working have given many social workers time and headspace to think of creative solutions to engage families and collaborate between teams.

We also discovered that collaboration between social work and other local services have improved, demonstrating the potential of multi-disciplinary working. A Principal Social Worker told us that:

The most successful interventions in my local authority were community-based and community-wide; for instance the provision of food packages and school meals, young people being given laptops by schools, social workers buying tablets to facilitate virtual visits.

Whilst there have been positives for practitioners during this unusual time, we heard that some of the issues that were raised in the blueprint have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Practitioners told us that this crisis has held up a mirror in front of the sector for many; exposing the erosive effects of increased bureaucracy and mistrust in the workforce. A social worker told us that “there has been request after request from management to do things we would never normally do”. A Team Manager told us that this might be because “bureaucracy is very comforting at times of anxiety”

Renewed risk assessments were also introduced as part of the crisis management response. While these can be helpful, practitioners said that they often confused and undermined social workers’ perspective on what the child and family needed. They also revealed how static the sector’s approach to risk is, with a Principal Social Worker commenting that:

Risk isn’t fixed, it’s fluid. Our understanding of risk therefore also needs to be just that… rather than being based on fixed desktop assessments.

Read our report of insights from practitioners

The time for transformation is now

All practitioners we spoke to expressed hope that the sector will take on board the lessons from the pandemic. There exists an unprecedented momentum for practitioners who want to change and shape the future of children’s social care. Returning to old ways of working would be a waste of the potential innovation that could come from this, and a heavy blow to social workers’ morale who have seen how quickly and effectively change can happen.

To ensure the sector adapts forward, leaders and practitioners in the sector face four key choices during crisis recovery. These could ensure the sector learns from the crisis and ultimately improve outcomes for families, children and practitioners alike:

These choices won’t be easy, but many leaders are already pioneering the mindset shift needed to make them happen and ensure that the system works better for children and families. This crisis has taught us that the sector can move mountains and adapt in ways that were not previously imagined. Now, leaders require confidence and backing to make choices that will enable them to adapt forward and better serve children and families in the years to come.

Read our report of insights from practitioners