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BASW England launches the 80-20 campaign to improve working conditions for social workers and drive better outcomes for children

BASW England, in partnership with the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, has launched a new initiative as part of our attempts to improve working conditions for social workers, and in turn improve outcomes for children.

The 80-20 campaign is an attempt to eventually reverse the current situation which sees social workers spending close to 80% of their time working on computers or completing paperwork, while only 20% of their time is spent in direct contact, building relationships with children and families.

The campaign draws upon a survey of 350 BASW members* which showed that in an average social worker working week of 45 hours, 29 are spent on a computer or doing paperwork.

It follows the publication of the Children's Commissioner's Office Stability Index 2018, which warned that far too many youngsters - almost 2.400 - are being shunted around the care system, facing multiple changes to their home, school or social workers.

BASW England's survey and collaborating research from respected professors in the field of social work** highlight the need for an organisational culture shift to create more opportunities and time for social workers to have face to face contact with children.

Furthermore, we know that relationship-based practice requires skilled and reflective use of self, informed by critical reflection and analysis, and augmented by creativity and curiosity. Yet 32% of respondents said they spent no time on reflective practice per week and 42% of respondents said they spent less than an hour.

This is not a case of remodelling social work but getting back to what works best.

Maris Stratulis, BASW England manager is leading this initiative and says: “The term ‘relationship based social work’ is not an add on, it is fundamentally about building relationships and that takes time, investment and commitment. More direct contact is what children are telling us they need, and we need to listen to what they are telling us.”

Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England, says: “Children in care deserve the chance to thrive and fulfil their aspirations, and stable relationships are an essential part of building their lives and achieving their potential. Children themselves say that stability is the most important aspect of their experience of care. That’s why I think the 80/20 campaign is an important opportunity to look at the impact of the direct time social workers spend with children and families, and at how we can improve the experiences of children in care.”

With 80-20 we may be attempting to flip the ratio, but we aren’t being flippant about the ‘how’ bit. We know we won’t be to click our fingers and suddenly social workers will be out in the field doing the life changing work they want to do.

But there are pathways to better practice, actual practical solutions that we have identified which we will be taking to local authorities with the aim of working with them to implement.

These include investing in better IT systems which don't require duplication. A look at local authority health-check surveys show on average, 87 per cent of social workers said they had access to IT, although the quality of equipment varied.

The most common reported IT problems were slow running computers, unreliable photocopiers and case recording systems going offline.

Some councils that had invested in new technology for social workers had seen it pay off.

In Bracknell Forest, staff were positive about the “considerable investment” in new equipment, including Blackberries. North Yorkshire BASW members said new technology had reduced duplication of work and increased their ability to do direct work.

Meanwhile, North Tyneside’s adult’s social worker members said laptops and tablets had saved them time and helped speed up case recording.

Another example is controlling admin through dedicated admin staff. Most social workers agree that they currently did tasks they felt could be done by an administrator. Examples including minute-taking, typing and scanning.

We know admin teams have been cut back, leaving remaining staff stretched or social workers expected to do their own admin. But by cutting down on unnecessary admin and providing team administrators to assist, social workers can be left to do the real relationship building work, thus cutting down the workload and reducing the need for extra, arguably more expensive agency staff.

One Suffolk social worker said the introduction of dedicated admin support for their team had “enormously” improved “the capacity and quality of service we can provide”.

We’ll also be advocating for a change in management thinking, to move away from managerialism focussing on performance indicators and targets and to place more importance put on direct work and outcomes for children. 

Leaders and managers should do everything possible to boost staff pride in their work, by supporting them to do what they trained for, by having autonomy to do what matters for their service users, and spend more time engaging in direct work.

This is just a flavour of what the 80-20 campaign is setting out to achieve.

In parallel, we will also continue our campaign to lobby government against anti-austerity measures that increase poverty, cause families to break down and thus become one of the drivers behind year-on-year increases in referral rates and child protection measures.

Notes:

* We conducted a survey of our members on how much ‘direct’ time social workers spend with children and families, asking six questions. Over 350 members from across the country responded and the results show the lack of direct time social workers are currently spending with children and families.

In a social worker’s average working week of 45 hours, 29 are spent on a computer or doing paperwork. The survey showed that on average our members spend only 11 hours a week on direct relationship-based time with children.

 

Perhaps more insightful than the figures are the comments left by respondents:

 

  1. “As a team manager the most common frustration I hear from the social work staff I supervise is that they do not have enough time to complete direct work with young people”

 

  1. “Social work is totally skewed in favour of administration and is the focus of supervision. This bias is shown in the fact that assessments/reports are scrutinised and send back to me for amending, but I have not been observed in direct work with any family/young person in 5 years, yet my paperwork is reviewed regularly.”

 

  1. “If only we could do the job we all came into the profession to do rather than being a slave to the computer and organisation bureaucracy.”

 

** Dr David Wilkins from University of Bedfordshire, Professor Donald Forrester from Cardiff University and researchers from the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care recently collaborated on three major Department of Education funded evaluations.

Information was gathered from over eight local authorities, including 600 audio recordings of social workers and families and 200 recordings of supervisions.

In a meeting organized by BASW, the results were presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Social Work.

The MPs were shown that government funding for social services has dropped significantly since 2010. That there has been an almost 29% drop in local spending power and that early help and preventative support services have borne substantial cuts.

In addition, the findings showed local authorities in more deprived areas have experienced around 45.6% in cuts, while local authorities in relatively affluent areas have seen 28.3% in cuts.

The research concluded that families are more likely to report good working relationships, agreed goals, lower levels of stress and higher life ratings when their social worker demonstrates good levels of skill, and that these benefits are only evident when there is sufficiently frequent contact.

But also, crucially, that the right working conditions need to be in place for social workers to achieve this.

As Dr David Wilkins says in his report: Workers understandably find it difficult to engage in emotionally-intensive work if they themselves are not well supported– asking how social workers are supported emotionally should form a core part of considering whether a service is good enough or not.